I get visitors from Manila quite often. They are usually suppliers and consultants who come here to Palawan to identify business opportunities. Our discussions usually start with business topics, then gradually stray to the scenic spots and natural wonders of the province. It did not hit me at first, but I began to realize that many fellow Filipinos are not aware of the “bising.”
Many names, but little information?
Other names for Palawan Tree Squirrel appear to include “Northern Palawan Tree Squirrel,” “Southern Palawan Tree Squirrel,” “Palawan Red Tail Squirrel,” and locally, “Bising.” I am actually unsure if all these names refer to the same species. In fact, I was quite surprised to realize that nothing substantial is known about the Palawan Tree Squirrel after I spent hours searching for information about it on the internet.
Never would I imagine that something I considered so common—to the point of being a pest—would be so unknown to other parts of the country or to the worldwide web. Fortunately for me, my mission is to share my personal encounters with these creatures, and not to tell their story like an encyclopedia.
I grew up thinking that the Bising was a common animal all throughout the world. After all, they shared certain similarities with their cousins, the rats and mice. When I was a child, almost every other household kept a Bising as a pet at some point. Squirrels also appeared often on TV, so naturally, a child would assume that this creature was everywhere. As time passed, I discovered that this was not the case. In fact, a lot of Filipinos do not know what a Bising is, or that we have squirrels in the Philippines. My personal explanation for this is that, of the three types of squirrels that I actually know of, they all exist only in Palawan.
My research led me to discover that there is in fact another type of squirrel that exists in Mindanao and in limited parts of Visayas, although I have yet to meet the Visayan or Mindanaoan who could tell me that s/he has actually seen the animal. The limited distribution of these squirrel species—plus the very limited study of and material about them—may probably explain why they are quite unknown to people outside their range.
Getting spotted and heard
Trying to locate one can be a challenge at first. But when they start moving in the late morning, they are very enjoyable to watch. Just keep still so they will not be distracted from their games. The Bising, whether captive or in its natural habitat, is a very interesting creature to observe.
It is reddish in color, hence the name “Red Tail Squirrel.” I have noticed that some Bising have a darker shade of fur on their backs. I am guessing that these are the older ones because the smaller ones always have that bright glaring color. However, their color looks more like fiery orange than red, which makes spotting them relatively easy. I wonder why it was not colored to blend into the background? One can easily spot it jumping from branch to branch.
I recently spotted a group of Bising scampering around a wooded area behind the campus of Palawan Hope Christian School, which is located along a commercial road. My office building is nearby. Whenever I come to office extra early, I hear a loud chirping call. I have ignored this call for a long time.
But one day, about a month ago, I finally decided to find out once and for all what kind of bird was able to make such loud calls. As I ventured into the wooded area, lo, it was not the chirping of birds, but of squirrels. The sound is quite similar to the chirping of common birds like the maya, only much louder. The Bising’s call goes thus: one distinct syllable at a time, with 1 to 4 seconds of silence in between. It is quite relaxing, unlike the incessant and rapid chatter of the maya, which makes you feel they are always arguing about something.
The Bising tail is also fun to watch. The tail twitches up every time it makes a call, looking like a tiny fluffy feather duster. This accessory puts the Bising high on the cuteness list, as opposed to their cousins the rats.
Last year, I went to another wooded part of town just about a kilometer from my office building. This mini-forest is near the sea and it transitions from terrestrial trees, like acacia and mahogany, to a mangrove forest. It was about sunset and I was really surprised to get caught in the middle of a Bising gang’s roughhousing. They were practically all around me, jumping from tree to tree and making all sorts of noises. I was also surprised to know that they do go down the mangrove forest to play and explore. Mangrove trees grow on areas where the ground becomes mud when the water recedes at low tide but practically becomes the sea during high tide. I did not expect that these rodents would like to play on waters half a meter deep.
From my observations of these wild Bising, I can tell that their body length is about 6 inches in length and the tail is about just as long. I have seen slightly bigger specimens but definitely not as big as the ones hunted by TV personalities for dinner on survival shows. The American and European counterparts of the Bising are much larger, particularly the grey squirrels. I have also observed that their Western counterparts have thicker and fluffier fur. I surmise that this is because of the climate. We Pinoys like to take our shirts off on hot days, while our Western friends need thick garments from autumn to spring. Maybe this is also the case for Pinoy squirrels and Western squirrels.
Up Close and Personal with a Native Squirrel
I was able to touch and pet these creatures during my younger years, and the tame ones are fun companions indeed. Caution must be taken when handling them, however. Those that are truly safe to pet and have around children are the ones that were domesticated at a young age.
These were fairly common during the 80s and the 90s. Baby squirrels would practically fall off coconut trees during the niyog or buko (coconut) harvest while the adults would run away. People would then adopt these abandoned babies and they could become pretty tame. If domesticated properly, they became fully attached to their owners. They could be brought out to the streets by putting them inside loose pockets, where they will stay cozy until called out by their owner.
The Bising that are domesticated later can still become dependent on their owners but they are very jumpy at the sight of people. Even those that are accustomed to the presence of their owners can give you a bad nip when you try to pet them, and I am speaking based on experience. Fortunately, I am still well today despite the absence of tetanus and rabies shots during my time. The teeth of squirrels are typical of rodents, with one pair above and one pair below. They are very, very sharp. A gentle nip can be very painful. A strong nip can cause a deep gash.
For those who have pet rodents, such as hamsters and guinea pigs, you would have an idea of what it is like to have a squirrel for a pet. Imagine a red and slender counterpart of the hamster with three times the jumpiness and speed: that’s the pet Bising. Indeed, squirrels are very active, and they should be. In the wild, they can leap from tree to tree and branch to branch a couple of meters apart and 10 meters above the ground with great accuracy and confidence. I guess “learn from your mistakes” does not apply in a squirrel’s life.
So, instead of a hamster wheel, the squirrel would prefer some driftwood to climb and run on. It is actually a great injustice to lock the Bising in a cage no bigger than a child’s school bag, but that is the case for most of the captive Bising that I saw during my younger days. There are pet owners who do provide a decent place for their pet squirrel to stay in, with ample space for the Bising to scamper around and an imitation tree hole for a “bedroom.”
It is worth mentioning that the tail does add considerable novelty to having a pet Bising. I cannot think of another pet rodent that can beat the squirrel when it comes to this fancy accessory.
The Bising is fairly easy to keep; they eat most fruits and nuts. However, some owners lose their pets because they try to feed them meat or oily food. Even fried peanuts are harmful to these creatures.
They like to groom themselves. So as long as they are given space to rest, away from the ground and moisture, they can maintain the healthy fluff and glow of their fur without many problems.
Another trait of the squirrel that owners must remember is that they have a more nervous disposition compared to other rodent pets. The sound of planes flying by, loud cars, popping firecrackers, and even the loud shrieks of children scare them. They get very much stressed out by noise; in fact, it is not unheard of for a very frightened Bising to just drop dead in its cage.
I understand there are laws prohibiting the possession of wildlife but I do hope they can make an exemption for the Bising. They are fun to be with and they are quite abundant. I don’t think they will become endangered any time soon. Besides, they are still considered as pests by coconut farmers. They have also grown accustomed to the presence of human beings, which is why I can spot Bising colonies so close to the school and other human developments. As long as there are trees and an adequate food supply, the Bising can thrive. We import rodents like hamsters, white rats, gerbils, guinea pigs, rabbits, and others for the local pet trade. Why not develop our very own rodent for this industry? It is actually a very strong contender for preferred pet of the year.
While I am very enthusiastic about the idea of Bising becoming part of the pet trade, caution must also be exercised. I encountered feral white rats in Metro Manila some years ago. I cannot say for sure if this will lead to a wildlife or agricultural disaster since I do not know how its interbreeding with other rats will affect the environment. Still, it only goes to show that irresponsible pet owners who release their pet rodents or fish into the local community or waterways can cause irreparable damage.
An obvious example for this is the damage that the pleco catfish and knifefish are wreaking on Laguna Bay. Imagine the damage to orchards, banana plantations, and coconut farms if the squirrel is allowed to thrive in areas where it did not exist before. We must not forget that there is always a responsibility attached to pet keeping.
Right now, I do not have a pet Bising. But I surely hope I can be allowed to keep a pair or two, and I will build them the nicest cage that pet rodents can dream of.
This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s July 2017 issue.