A male Western gray squirrel as seen from my bedroom window one morning two weeks ago.

I’d always thought of squirrels as basically benign creatures albeit a bit, shall we say, squirrelly. But then came a BBC report in December 2005: Russian squirrel pack ‘kills dog.

Quoting Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, the BBC reported; “Squirrels have bitten to death a stray dog which was barking at them in a Russian park… Passersby were too late to stop the attack by black squirrels in a village in the far east….

“They are said to have scampered off at the sight of humans, some carrying pieces of flesh. A pine cone shortage may have led to the squirrels to seek other food sources, although scientists are skeptical.”

Did the attack really happen? Whatever happens in Russia, to quote Winston Churchill, “is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” All I can tell you is that squirrels are omnivorous and will eat small birds, along with acorns. Moreover, Komosmolskaya Pravda reported that just a few months earlier, chipmunks had “terrorized cats” in the area.

Squirrels on this hill have plenty of pine cones to dine on, which could explain why they don’t bother to attack dogs (or cats). The squirrels, however, make their presence known in other ways. My neighbors and I are forever finding tips of pine branches lying on the ground.

Western gray squirrels (Scuirus grilseus) like to feed on pine trees’ cambium layer, which is immediately under the bark, the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management Program notes. In the process, squirrels gnaw off twigs.

One of the four species of tree squirrels in California is a particular problem for agricultural and suburban gardens, which is why Integrated Pest Management is interested in squirrels.

California’s native Douglas squirrels (found in the Sierra and on the North Coast) are seldom a problem. Native Western gray squirrels and non-native Eastern gray squirrels aren’t all that much of a problem either. “Eastern gray squirrels (Scuirus carolinensis) were originally introduced from the eastern United States into Golden Gate Park in San Francisco,” Integrated Pest Management reports. They’ve already spread out to San Joaquin and Calveras counties, and “may be expanding their range.”

By far the most problematic squirrels are “Eastern fox squirrels (Sciurus niger), Integrated Pest Management notes. They “were introduced from the eastern part of the United States and are well established in most major cities of California…. In some cities, Eastern fox squirrels have moved outward into agricultural land, especially in the southern part of the state, where they have become a pest of commercial crops.”

Although you need a state permit to kill or capture most tree squirrels in California, the same does not hold true for Eastern fox squirrels. California is a free-fire zone when it comes to these rodents, which are also known as Red fox squirrels.

Some people have theorized that Scuridae, the scientific name for the family of rodents to which squirrels and chipmunks belong, may have the same root as our word scurry.

Whatever the case, it is known that the name squirrel comes to us from squyrel in Middle English (what Chaucer spoke in the 1300s). Squyrel, in turn, came from the ancient Greek word skiouros, which not surprisingly meant squirrel.