Dozens of native California squirrels have made their nests in a Palo Alto neighborhood's "fairy" houses -- much to the dismay of College Terrace residents.
The squirrels, which normally nest in trees, have shown a preference for the pint-sized fairy houses, which are part of a neighborhood-wide project residents started in June 2008.
The College Terrace Fairy Door Project created dozens of tiny doors and homes designed by residents for fairies. The original project was conceived by College Terrace resident Michelle Oberman, whose hometown of Ann Arbor, Mich., has a fairy-door tradition, she said.
But what started out as a charming way to link the community and add some whimsical garden art to the neighborhood has now become something nightmarish, some residents said.
"Squirrels are popping out from every nook and cranny. And they're quite territorial. I can hardly make it from my back door to water my garden plants without them charging at my ankles," said Nora Sciurus, who has three fairy houses around her garden.
Others have been bombarded with nuts by the arboreal creatures who've moved into fairy tree houses.
"They'll scurry out on a limb and squawk their warning call, twitching their tails in spasms. They look at me with those beady little eyes and then lob walnuts they've plucked off the tree straight at me. I swear, they throw more curve balls than Tim Lincecum," John Nigripes said.
Wildlife expert Jordan Roque said the Bay Area's unusually cold and wet winter and spring might be the reason the creatures have taken up residence in the fairy houses, which could substitute for a tree hollow. The City of Palo Alto's recent removal of many large, older trees that were diseased and deemed dangerous could also be a contributing factor, he said.
Surprisingly, only native California squirrels are taking part in the fairy-home invasions, he said. The larger Eastern Gray Squirrels, which were introduced into the Western Gray Squirrel's habitat, are not part of the fairy house movement, Roque said.
"It isn't known why there's this distinction, but it stands to reason, they are just a hardier breed than your typical California squirrel. Eastern Grays are distinct ecotypes. They have thousands of years of selective pressure, which has allowed them to develop distinct characteristics and tolerances based on generations of living and breeding in frigid East Coast winters.
"The California Gray Squirrel is, well, Californian. Typically laid back and rather wimpy about the cold weather. They're just used to our mild winters and California sunshine," he said.
Roque said it remains to be seen if the squirrels will permanently take up residence in the fairy houses. Typically, once they find a cozy home, squirrels are not apt to want to move on, he said.
"That could be bad news for the evicted fairies -- unless they're apt to use some of their magic to get their homes back -- like turning the squirrels into marmots, or some other creature that is too large to fit into the homes," he said with a chuckle.
But to resident Mike Harbottle, the whole thing "is a lot of hooey."
"This business of squirrels and fairy houses is just a figment of the imaginations of a lot of people with cabin fever from being locked inside after that almost one month of rain. Anyone who believes that junk is nothing more than an April fool."
(Editor's note: Happy April Fools' Day!)