Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today.
In this episode of Listen in, Michigan, you are going to meet the Squirrel Man, also known as Corey Seeman, director of Kresge Library Services at the Michigan Ross School of Business. Corey had always been interested in photography and was just starting to observe the campus squirrel when he got a digital camera in 2007. By 2008, he was all in. And he challenged himself to take at least one photo per day – of a squirrel.
Most of his subjects shelter in cavity nests – those holes you see in trees. And Corey always has a pocketful of peanuts as he makes a loop or two around the Law Quad over to Lorch Hall and up to Angell and Mason. Sometimes you’ll see him on the Diag, taking pictures of the Eastern fox squirrels – those are the bigger more petlike ones. Campus also is home to the Eastern gray (which sometimes appears black) and the red squirrel. Each is more photogenic than the rest. Photographing the squirrels is a happy diversion, he says, especially if he’s having a bad day.
I recently joined him in the Law Quad and at Martha Cook – it was 18 degrees and quite windy. But the squirrels were out in force, it’s mating season, I’m told, and they were delighted to see their friend with the peanuts and pose for yet another closeup. Here’s Corey.
Corey Seeman: So I did look up how many squirrel pictures I took.
Holdship: Oh yeah
Seeman: It’s like 68,000.
Seeman: Just Really. Okay, so I was thinking… If there was like 100, that’s okay. You know you take 100 pictures. It’s a thousand, that’s weird. But it gets to a certain number that it becomes impressive. So that’s what I’m hoping for. And the thing that I just love is being able to find a squirrel for almost any mood. Any picture. You know? For me, squirrels are just a fantastic subject so if I have to take a picture every day, I need to find something that is interesting. And so the squirrels always give me something different. There’s different lighting. There’s different weather. There’s a different look. Every day I always have a handful of photos that I think “ah these are good”.
The thing that’s really funny is that if you asked me in 2008 “list 10,000 things about me”, squirrel would never come up.
Holdship: (laughs) Now it’s the first thing.
Seeman: It’s the absolute first thing. And it’s weird. It’s on my license plate. It is on my business card. My luggage tag. And I wish I was as well known as a librarian as I am a squirrel photographer, but I figure you can take what you can get.
I’ve seen squirrels attack hawks and I never thought. But it’s always the mommas. There are more dead beat dads in the squirrel community than anywhere else. They’re really quite horrible. Umm. But one of the things… I was over by the art museum and there are three statues by Donner, I think the artist’s name is, and there was a squirrels nest in one of them. And there were some babies in there. And there was chirping and the momma didn’t like that because I was kind of poking around. And she, unlike some squirrels that climb me for whatever reason I don’t know what they are looking for. There was something very aggressive. I was too close to the nest and I was being shooed away and it was hilarious.
Holdship: What did she do?
Seeman: She ran up my leg and I realized that this wasn’t a nice…
Holdship: Wasn’t a “Hey Corey! Let’s hang out!”?
Seeman: It wasn’t a nice hug, it was like a grab. And so I kind of moved and she dropped down. And then she did it again. And she dropped down and she did it again.
Holdship: No way!
Seeman: She basically sent me all the way to the diag. I was cracking up. But I didn’t want to actually get on her total bad side.
Holdship: Yeah because you wanted to come back and see if those two little heads are gonna poke out.
Seeman: And they did. No, I was apparently… I wasn’t banned for life I was just banned for that moment. But the mommas are really, very very protective. And I’ve seen them go after hawks.
Holdship: Brave. Yeah, they aren’t messing around.
Seeman: There are three pictures I want to talk about. One is in the Hardy Mums out in front of Ross. I took that in 2015. In the autumn. There was a squirrel in there and I was trying to coax him out and he poked his head up and I got a picture. And that’s the one that actually was the runner up in the 2018 Washington Post Squirrel Week photo contest. And then the Detroit News had a contest. It was the people’s choice winner for the Michigan Woods and Wildlife photo contest.
Holdship: Right on!
Seeman: So I was really excited about that. The second one was just in the comedy wildlife photography awards. I was selected as a finalist and then I was highly commended. So they took down a tree at Law, it had died, but there was a cavity nest in there. There was a squirrel and I knew the squirrel had been living in there and occasionally when squirrels come out of their nest they give a big hairy yawn. They wake up and they go “AHHHH”. This squirrel, I had just caught it perfectly. And not only was he giving a huge yawn, but he was extending his right paw out, his or her, and it just looked like he was like “Hey! I’m up here! I’m up here!” And so that picture was one of my favorites.
Holdship: So cute!
Seeman: Those two have actually done fairly well in the squirrel photography circuit, which I’m learning about.
Holdship: Which you are the king of.
Seeman: Yeah… Who knows.
Holdship: In my eyes!
Seeman: Oh thank you! Thank you. The one. There’s one picture I just adore. It was taken in a cavity nest last year I think it was. There was a mother squirrel and a juvenile and the juvenile was kind of leaning out and the mother was just putting her paw on his head, or his or her head. Just to say “you know, I think we’re just going to wait and see what kind of person this is”. And it’s just…
Seeman: I love that picture so much. And then every day I end up with one I really like. There are the wildflowers that spring up behind Martha Cook and they come up for about a week and they are beautiful and it’s blue and then they are gone. So if you can get a squirrel during that time it’s really fantastic.
Holdship: I love, I’ve always loved the ones with the red berries against the white snow and stuff like that. They are just so vivid and fresh looking. You know? So cute.
Seeman: I’ve seen them with a churro, with a cookie, with a pizza and I couldn’t get pizza squirrel to get to be a bigger thing. But and then I’ve seen a hoagie. It was like a freezing cold day and there was a hoagie that was about 6 inches. And the squirrel’s just going… This is a happy day.
And then on the other side, so squirrels are scavengers, and they will eat stuff out of garbage cans and it’s great and all. Umm, I’ve seen a squirrel eating a starling. Now starlings are not my favorite birds. They are invasive but it’s just like… umm…
Seeman: Yeah. And I was kind of like “what’s that squirrel eating?” and then I got closer and I’m like “Oh!” And the squirrels just going like “Nom Nom Hmm”.
Holdship: (laughs) How would you describe the nature of the U of M squirrel to someone from Mars who had no idea what they were dealing with?
Seeman: Oh gosh. Umm. I’d say they come in peace. That much has to be said right off the bat. One of the things is that I’ve been, at the University of Washington they have great squirrels. NYU in Washington Square Park. Fantastic. NYU is maybe a bad example. Most of the campuses, squirrels are kind of skittish and will run off. A lot of eastern grays tend to be more skittish. The difference with the fox squirrels, especially the ones here, is they tame up. So as the juveniles, maybe tame up is not the best phrase…
Holdship: But they’re not so afraid of humans.
Holdship: Yeah obviously. (laughs)
Seeman: And what happens is, they learn that people can be trusted and so in my backyard, you would think that I would be like Saint Francis of Assissi and have all the squirrels come. Squirrels take off and this is long before we had the dog. The squirrels just don’t come to my feeder. So I’m like the one place in America where I don’t have any of those anti-squirrel feeders. “Come come please.” And they just don’t.
Holdship: Clearly they all have different tastes. Some like bird. But what about like personalities and stuff. You must have names and do you have little families that you follow? Like do you know who they are and can you tell how the way they act who they are?
Seeman: Every so often, I think I can. So I have this fantasy. I have a very rich fantasy world and in that fantasy a squirrel sees me coming and they see my brown leather jacket that I’ve been wearing every winter since, the last 20 years, and they are like “Oh I know that guy! He’s got peanuts.” But I think they go for the behavior. Someone who’s stopping and they are like “Oh they are stopping. This could be good they may have some food and I’m gonna run up.” So it’s not me, it’s them.
We do have a three pawed squirrel on campus.
Holdship: No way. Where does it live?
Seeman: She lives off of South U.
Holdship: Three paws!?
Seeman: Yeah, she’s missing the front right paw. So she has two names. Friends of mine over in the Arts schools or in the Art History department and the President’s house call her “Tripod”, I call her “Lefty”.
Holdship: (laughs) Cute.
Seeman: She is awesome. Not deterred a bit. Can climb up and down trees. Does amazing. And the first time I saw her. You know, you are looking and you don’t know if she’s pulling her paw in or if she’s actually missing. I have no idea how it happened. I’m sure it was a hawk or something equally bad, but she climbs, she eats, she does very well and I’ve been able to take a lot of pictures of her over the years. She’s my favorite because she’s just wonderful and every day I see her, it’s really kind of good luck. I’ve seen her now for about over a year and a half. So I don’t know how old she is, but she’s pretty recognizable.
Holdship: Ooo I’m going to keep my eye out for her.
Seeman: Squirrels will stay in a pretty tight area, so I’ve seen her in the Law Quad, behind Martha Cook, and then in front of Clements and the President’s House. But not really anywhere besides that.
Holdship: Okay. Keep your eye out for Lefty. She’s out there.
Seeman: She’s out there and she could always use a peanut. Any of them could always use a peanut or some food.
But, I typically don’t name the squirrels.
Holdship: Just because you don’t want to get attached to them or because it’s too confusing?
Seeman: It’s way too confusing. Every so often you’ll see a color variation, maybe they’ll have a white spot on their neck, so you’re like “okay I know who that might be” but it’s very very tricky. The squirrels on campus are so friendly and they are so different and they are very interested in you. They are probably interested in you because you are a source of food. And the thing I like to do is what I call squirrel diplomacy and so if I see someone, you can always tell the people who are here for the first time like “Oh my God this is amazing”. Would you like to feed them? So I always have enough peanuts in my blue bag to basically hook people up.
Holdship: Yes. We actually had a dog in L.A. that saved a baby squirrel and we took it to a squirrel lady and she revived it. She fostered it.
Seeman: There actually are people, there are all sorts of wonderful people I know on campus, but there are also the Michigan Friends of Wildlife and they’ve actually hooked me up with medicated pecans. So as I spot squirrels that have mange, so they have bald spots, I can hook them up with medicine and I carry it around with me. And at first, I thought oh it’s really hard because you have to give them this pecan and give them it again at the end of seven days, but it’s actually not that hard as long as the mange is pretty isolated you can tell which one. And they will typically stay in the same area.
Holdship: Okay that makes sense.
Seeman: So I’ve been spending a lot more time with the people who rehabilitate and assist. It’s nice because if you are bald and you should have fur and it’s ten degrees out, it’s probably going to be a cruddy day.
Holdship: I don’t know, what can we learn from squirrels? What have you learned from squirrels over the years from observing them?
Seeman: Well, I’ve learned a lot about squirrels but the thing I’ve learned the most about, and this is kind of weird, but I’ve learned how information flows. And this has been really fascinating because I’m a librarian. My interest in squirrels and my interest in social media rose up at about the same time. So all of a sudden you realize there are a thousand people on Twitter and on Instagram and on Facebook who love squirrels. And so you can see how information sharing can actually work and some of my most popular, most of my tweets are just stupid, but…
Holdship: They are entertaining. They bring us joy.
Seeman: Oh, thank you. Extremely generous. Umm, I think it’s fascinating, specifically from a librarian standpoint. And then the other thing is how things are tagged to make things findable. And that’s something that librarians are fascinated with. Especially because you could stumble on a book on a shelf but you can’t stumble on a digital image because they are not really tagged. Unless you actually do it. I mean you can have some computer recognition that can say “Ah yes this is a picture of a plug and an earphone,” umm but it won’t really give the context. The way that Flickr works is that it does a very good job at pushing photos out into search engines and so to be able to see my squirrels and my other pictures because I do take pictures of other things. Squirrels are my favorites. But to see how they are found is really quite fascinating.
Holdship: What an interesting connection!
Seeman: And the reach. We think about the photos that are sitting in boxes. And my photos may not be the very best squirrel photos but they have been viewed people all over Creation and I think that’s, it’s kind of fun.
I was in western Maryland and I saw a postcard that said “Squirrels at the University of Michigan” and it’s fascinating. And I was just like “Oh my God this is great!” And that was sort of a reminder that you’re really just part of a long cycle to basically carry forward this tradition that people have been feeding the squirrels and taking care of the squirrels. The squirrels are the one thing on campus, everyone you have business school students here, law school students, graduates, undergraduates, and stats and everyone’s got all these different programs. You’re under a lot of pressures. But the squirrels, the squirrels and football are the two things that pretty much everyone can have in common. And you have students who don’t like football, but most people like the squirrels. It’s at least something that people remember and it’s just, it’s always great. And I love this in photography, it’s always great to capture things that people may not notice. There is a cavity nest in the side of Hatcher Library. Umm, high in the brickworks and people aren’t looking for that. If you can capture and share, it provides just a little bit of levity, hopefully, in people’s day. If you are stressing about exams, finals, even if you’re not gonna do it, but only once, just to go out, grab a handful of peanuts maybe some pizza crust, you’re gonna make a squirrel very happy.
Holdship: That’s really why we are here. I think.
Seeman: That’s why I’m here. I have another job, I know. But umm…
Holdship: That gets done, you know? You get your work done and you still go have some fun
with some squirrels.
Well, the squirrels are fed and snug in their cavity nests and Corey has a new batch of images to comb through on this cold winter day. Corey’s love for nature is undeniable. So compassionate toward our furry little friends. Well, I hope you all have a happy holiday and we’ll be back next year with more episodes of Listen in, Michigan. My colleague at Michigan news, Mike Wood, will debut his podcast, “beyond the headlines,” in January. His first guest will be alumna and law professor Barb McQuade, who often appears on MSNBC as a contributing expert. So get ready for that! OK that’s it for now. Thanks for listening. Find Listen in, Michigan and subscribe at Google Play Music, iTunes, Tunein, and Stitcher. OK, I’ve got a pocketful of peanuts and I’m going to look for Lefty. See you next year, and as always, Go Blue!
Let’s talk about squirrels
You may have seen him around the Law Quad or behind Martha Cook. He’s got a favorite spot by the Clements Library, right near the President’s House. He wears a brown leather jacket, hangs a camera around his neck, and carries a bag of peanuts everywhere he goes.
Corey Seeman is director of Kresge Library Services at the Michigan Ross School of Business. That’s what he gets paid to do on campus. He also is an artist who’s discovered an endless source of inspiration on U-M’s Central Campus: Since 2008, he’s taken at least one photo per day of a Michigan squirrel.Seeman always had been interested in photography and was just starting to make a few friends in the family Sciuridae when he responded to an online arts challenge to take a picture a day for one year. The squirrels seemed like the best place to start, and once he started, he never stopped. The hobby aligns neatly with his expertise and affinity for information archiving, management, and flow. Each day he scans through his take, faithfully loading images to Flickr and sharing with fellow squirrel aficionados across Twitter and Instagram. He’s up to nearly 70,000 images at this point.
The Michigan squirrel has long fascinated the campus human. Listen in, as Seeman shares the reasons behind his affinity for these “tamed-up” creatures and why they create a happy diversion in his life. We started with a chat in the Michigan News Studio followed by a bracing December walk to where the not-so-wild things are.
(Hint: Martha Cook is a pretty rocking spot. Mating season, no less.)