By Associate Producer, Vance Chow
We rise early in the morning, needing to be on location and ready to shoot by 7 am. Everything has been prepared, but such are the joys of wildlife filming that no matter how ready you are, when it comes down to it you're always on someone else's time - in this case, squirrel time.
Typically, squirrels are known to have periods of high activity for a few hours after sunrise, followed by a squirrel siesta (afternoon naps reflect a squirrel's ongoing balance between caloric output and potential benefits from given activities), and then a renewed period of activity before sundown. The average squirrel is about 20-30 cm in length, weighing about 300-700 grams (about half a pound to a pound and a half) - meaning that to them, we might as well be giants.
Stationed at the northern end of Trinity Bellwoods Park in downtown Toronto, we've got our regular camera set-up, along with a 30 foot jib - essentially a long crane-like arm that allows us to move the camera around from above and side-to-side, following a squirrel's progress along the ground and up a tree. As the day progresses, we'll come to realize that this perhaps wasn't the best idea, as the squirrels don't seem overly receptive to the idea of a long metal object with a rotating camera at the end of it following them around as they go about their daily routine. Still, it was worth a try.
If you've ever wondered why squirrels seem to run around in all directions (and occasionally under car tires) instead of making a beeline for safety in a straight line, just think about what a squirrels primary natural predators would be. Hawks, raptors, owls, the occasional fox or snake... you get the idea. When you're being hunted largely from above, and by creatures that are bigger and faster than you, it pays to be always moving - the more erratic and unpredictable the better.
Here in the city, the squirrels that we generally see running around our neighbourhoods fall under the classification of the eastern grey squirrel, or Sciurus carolinensis. This includes the standard greys as well as the black colour morph variations, with the occasional splash of brown, and of course even the little white ones that Trinity Bellwoods is home to (the well-known White Squirrel Café is just a short walk away, right across the street).
In Toronto, most of our grey squirrels are actually black - scientists can't necessarily say definitively why, but the reasons almost certainly have to do with historic breeding population genetics, combined with the fact that black preserves heat better in northern climes (grey is better as camouflage against natural predators, but the number of hawks and owls flying around in downtown Toronto fortunately tends to be low).
We try to follow the squirrels and keep them in the camera's frame, building on our growing understanding of the fact that almost everything a squirrel does is done for a reason. That being said, squirrels are not above the occasional bout of playtime, just for the fun of it! As production on the show progresses, we'll speak to some of the world's premier squirrel experts, biologists and ecologists, who will help to illuminate an acorn-filled but little known world, in the process teaching us how to 'think like a squirrel'. More this fall on The Nature of Things.