Photo: Andrew A. Nelles / For The Chicago Tribune
There have been recent reports that the squirrels of America are hell-bent on the destruction of our electrical infrastructure.
According to the New York Times, these furry terrorists with sharp teeth—Squirr-Al-Qaeda?—have already caused 50 power outages this summer and show no signs of stopping.
One such outage, which affected 4,000 homes, was blamed on squirrels just last week outside of Bloomington, Illinois.
Hyperbole aside, are squirrels really that big of a threat to our electric way of life?
“Yes and no,” says Chicago’s Academy of Science urban ecologist Dr. Steve Sullivan, who also heads a science initiative called Project Squirrel. For the record, Sullivan says he has never come across a charred electrocuted squirrel carcass as described by the New York Times, or received such a report through the citizen squirrel monitors working for Project Squirrel.
Regardless, it is true squirrels gnaw on our wires and play in our transformer boxes, but it’s not a squirrel problem inasmuch as it is an urban wildlife issue: any animal that is roughly squirrel sized (or bigger—like, the size of a deer with wings) can cause a power outage.
Besides squirrels, bald and golden eagles cause power outages too, as do sparrows and escaped monk parakeets building nests inside transformers or on power poles. “We get calls a lot in the fall, of rabbits chewing on spark plug wires,” says Sullivan.
Raccoons knock out our power as well—in fact, a local news outlet in Normal, Illinois, reports that a recent power outage was the work of a furry bandit. A quick, rather unscientific Google news search reveals the rate at which raccoons cause power outages in North America to be more frequent than squirrels.
“If you look at other parts of the world you will find black rats—which aren’t common in the U.S., but are in many countries—are the ones causing power outages,” adds Sullivan. “Monkeys, in certain parts of the world, cause power outages, too. There will always be tension between wildlife and humans, that’s simply the reality.”
The problem isn’t squirrels and other urban wildlife as much as it is our own limited technology, Sullivan says.
“Our electricity infrastructure is almost exactly the same as when it was designed by Thomas Edison in the 1800’s, there’s nothing substantially new or different—it’s just a pole and a wire,” points out Sullivan. Our rather unprotected electricity infrastructure is vulnerable to being knocked out by everything from extreme weather to car crashes (like the one in Aurora last month).
Well, we could update what is essentially an almost 200-year-old technology on how we transmit our energy. (Tesla’s designs, anyone?) But, given current economic and physical constraints, this probably won’t happen any time soon.
A more realistic approach would be for power companies to continue to make power infrastructure safer for animals—this includes keeping transformer boxes properly closed—while also continuing to build redundancies in their electricity grid.
In the meantime, there is no need to arm ourselves for an impending War on Squirrels.