CHICAGO (AP) -- Squirrels hit the genetic lottery with their chubby cheeks and bushy tails. They're rodents, after all, and it's hard to imagine picnickers tossing peanuts and cookies their way if they looked like rats. But good looks alone don't get you through Chicago winters. They don't help you negotiate a treacherous landscape of hungry cats, big cars and metal traps. So how do they do it? What does all that searching, huddling, darting and -- oh, not again -- forgetting where they hid their nuts mean? Joel Brown aims to find out. "We're trying to get a glimpse of what your life is like if you are a city squirrel," said Brown, a biologist at the University of Illinois-Chicago. "And the winter time is ... crunch time for them." To get answers, Brown and a team of students will trap squirrels in Chicago and its suburbs this winter, taking skin samples for DNA analysis. They'll strap bright collars on them and watch what they do and where they go. And they'll attach threads to acorns and hazelnuts, then see where the squirrels take them and when they eat them.My theory is that they have banked on their cuteness to keep bleeding-heart pansies from putting them in Crock Pots, as they should. They're an enormous and untapped food source right here under our noses. Why spend big bucks in the meat department of the grocery store when you can get it for free?
"They are the clowns in your back yard," he said. "A circus act; Spiderman."Hmm, I dunno about that. Wildlife on one's dinner plate, perhaps? Especially wildlife that, when left unchecked and allowed to be unwary of human BB guns, will make pests of themselves and cause damage to homes.
And they appear to enjoy us as much as we enjoy them, although, "As a general rule, (to squirrels) you are a vending machine," Brown said.
But he knows the connection for humans runs deeper.
"Wildlife in one's backyard is the most intense, most enduring experience of nature than one would ever have," he said.