Is junk food bad for park squirrels?

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Dear Cecil: Watching people feeding squirrels in the park, it occurs to me that, since squirrels are unlikely to find many peanuts in their natural woodland habitat, peanuts may not be the best food in the world for them--not to mentionthe candy, crackers, and Fritos that some people indiscriminately toss to them. Are we really doing the squirrels a favor by feeding them this junk? Or have they managed to adapt to us? Morris S., Baltimore

Cecil replies:

After decades of city dwelling, urban squirrels have become quite different creatures from their woodland cousins — they’ll eat anything, and like it.

A researcher at the American Museum of Natural History, an institution that conveniently borders on New York’s Central Park, conducted an informal survey in 1957, placing the two nuts that squirrels seem to prefer in the wild — hazelnuts and acorns — among a row of more citified fare: peanuts, popcorn, and Cracker Jack. Without fail, the subject squirrels would select whichever tidbit happened to be closest, a sign that they’ve not only lost their natural taste but become fairly indolent as well.

Several naturalists have postulated that a peanut diet is genuinely harmful to the squirrels: it seems to result in a weakening of eyesight and a definite thinning of the pelt. Luckily, the parks continue to offer a passable selection of organic delights for more health-minded squirrels: the tender staminate flowers of oak and pine trees, the buds of young plants, and even, now and again, a touch of maple sap.

Cecil Adams

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