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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow Parks Coming Up Short on Squirrels

There is no shortage of squirrels in the great capitals of Europe or, for that matter, in most of Russia.

But in all this sprawling metropolis of 10 million people and some 700 square kilometers, city officials say there are but 200 squirrels. It is a statistic so arresting that one wants to skip the natural response -- "Great!" or "Horrors!", depending on whether one owns a bird feeder -- and just ask, "Why?"

It is a good question, to be addressed later. The more pressing question is: What is Moscow doing about it? And the answer is simple: It is breeding more.

"The squirrels need to multiply," said Mikhail Turkin, the chief forester at Izmailovo Park in the northwest corner of the city. "And for that, they need solitude."

Deep within the vast park, in a walk-in closet of a cage freshly built with pine planks and chicken wire, Turkin keeps a pride of 12 European red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris), frenetic creatures with rust-colored sides and long spikes of hair in place of rounded ears. Bought from a wild-animal breeder ("we needed a guarantee that they were not infected with something"), the squirrels have lived here since August.

There's a plexiglass roof over their heads to let in the great outdoors, a veterinarian to treat their ills and a feeder to give them one square meal every day at 8 a.m.

"In February they will multiply," Turkin said. "Not far from that cage, in the forest, we will set up feeding stations, and we'll let the young squirrels out. It will be a gradual transition from cage to real life. They're not used to finding food on their own."

This autumn, Moscow plans to have squirrel nests in six major parks and forests, with the goal of restoring Sciurus vulgaris to peanut-begging prominence.

"It's an animal everyone likes," said Anastasia Kuznetsova, who oversees specially protected lands in the city's park system. "It's nice looking. It's not a hedgehog, which goes out at night, and it can be easily tamed. Squirrels are not afraid of people, and they're not dangerous to children."

Technically, squirrels are part of a broader effort to restore native wildlife to the region's parks and forests, glades where a few deer and even elk still roam within earshot of homes and highways. Fish hawks, falcons and herons have been released to the wild; owls and perhaps hares are on the menu.

But the squirrels may be particularly difficult to bring back. Kuznetsova said squirrels have vanished from 20 parks in just the last five years and can be seen now only in about 30 spots, including a pack of about 20 subsisting on handouts beside a major highway that borders Izmailovo Park.

Relentless urbanization is one factor; the inner city is losing trees and parkland. More important, probably, is an increase in predators, led by stray cats and dogs, and the evil hooded crow, a nasty-tempered bird as big as a car jack, but less attractive.

The crow population has exploded with a decline in trash-collection efficiency. They not only relish many kinds of squirrel food, but regard young squirrels themselves as enticing appetizers.

"It's premeditated murder," Kuznetsova said.

There are countermeasures. For one thing, the city plans to feed its newly established squirrel colonies daily for years to come, handing out tidbits in the wild until the day when ordinary parkgoers take over the task.

There also are falcons. The Kremlin has deployed crow-eating falcons on its turrets with devastating efficiency. The city already has released a few falcons of its own, and plans more in the hope that they will eventually scare crows away, if not reduce their numbers.

Turkin cautions that squirrels are predators, too, and that there is such a thing as too much success. As a ranger in the Siberian forest, he said, he watched mass migrations of squirrels searching for tasty cedar nuts, which sound in retelling like a scene from a Hitchcock film.

"It's an army of squirrels -- moving across mountains, swimming across rivers," he said. "It happens when they eat everything and have to find food."

But that is Siberia. This is Moscow, where a born-free squirrel that will plead for acorns is a delight to be longed for.

"We do hope so," Kuznetsova said. "This is sort of our dream."