Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2008 | Feature

The Squirrel Project

By Robert E. Yager & Enger Sandra K.

Whe squirrels began tampering with the birdfeeder outside the classroom window in the fall, the students had many questions about squirrels. They knew the squirrels were hungry and asked if they could mkae feeders for them in the hope they would leave the bird feeders alone. With the help of the high school woods class, the children constructed squirrel feeders and hung them on trees in our elementary school's oak grove.

Discussions on what to feed the squirrels led to an investigation of three testable questions:

    • Do squirrels prefer eating corn from a high, medium, or low feeder?
    • Do squirrels prefer apples, corn, or cookies?
    • Do squirrels prefer their corn plain or with a topping (such as peanut butter, jelly, or suet)?

Questions for Parents & Children

  • What do squirrels eat?
  • Where do squirrels sleep?
  • How does a squirrel use that fluffy flag of a tail?
  • Why do squirrels go to different parts of our yard?
  • Do squirrels talk to each other?
  • What could we do to discover answers to our questions?

Each child signed up to investigate one of the questions. Research groups worked together to plan and conduct investigations, to monitor which foods and feeders the squirrels seemed to prefer, and then to replicate the investigations to see if similar outcomes would result. The children found squirrels preferred eating from the highest feeder, liked cookies better than apples or corn, and preferred to eat plain corn rather than corn with a topping. They had many interesting theories about the results. For example, they thought squirrels preferred eating from a high feeder because they could get away from predators more easily and were safe rom ones that couldn't fly or climb trees. One student proposed that squirrels liked cookies better than apples because cookies are sweet and easier to chew. Classmates also decided squirrels liked plain corn better than corn with toppings because the toppings resulted in messy paws, which could be problematic if an enemy approached. All these reasons indicated that students had been attempting to find patterns and causal relationships.

Throughtout the study, children uncovered many other interesting facts about squirrels. They were particularly fascinated with the myriad ways squirrels use their tails, such as a device for balancing, as a sail or rudder when swimming, as a blanket, as an umbrella, as a parachute, or even as a communication device.

They wondered if people could eat acorns like squirrels do and learned that humans have done so throughout history. The class cracked, boiled, dried, and ground acorns into flour for acorn bread. They participated in writing a readers theater script about the process, featuring a marionette named Sammy, a ladybug, a grasshopper, and a crow.

The children also constructed a model of a squirrel habitat in their play corner complete with oak trees, a squirrel shelter called a drey, plant life, various woodland animals, and a paper stream. They concluded their squirrel study by inviting the industrial arts teacher and his woods class to sample acorn bread, assist in taking down the squirrel feeders, and see a video documenting the project.