Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Red Squirrels: Feisty Adirondack Rodents

Who hasn’t gone for a walk in the Adirondacks and been sputtered at by a small rodent up in a tree? This russet-colored animal, the red squirrel, is probably the most commonly seen (and heard) mammal within the Blue Line. In fact, even as I write this, a red squirrel is fussing outside the window. Is another squirrel encroaching on its perceived turf? Is it trying to scare the birds away from the mother load of sunflower seeds we placed on the platform feeders? Who knows? I sometimes think these squirrels cuss at the world simply because they can.

Here in the Adirondacks we have several members of the squirrel clan. Starting with the smallest and working our way upwards, we have the eastern chipmunk (small, striped, sleeps away the winter), the red squirrel (small, reddish year-round raider of birdfeeders), the flying squirrel (northern and southern species, both of which are nocturnal), the grey (and sometimes black) squirrel (larger, more often found in villages and urban areas, as well as forests dominated by hardwoods), and (drum roll please) the woodchuck (bet you didn’t know that this was a squirrel). But today I’m focusing on the red squirrel, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus, that feisty, surly, aggressive, and yet adorable rodent that calls the north woods home.

The red squirrel is a small reddish rodent. Its color changes subtly with the seasons. In the winter, the fur’s bright reddish color lets us know that this squirrel is well-named. The belly is a grayish-white that blends into the red fur along the sides. Sometimes one can discern a pale black line separating the white and red, but not always. In the summer, the pelt is a softer red, sometimes tending towards an olive-grey color, with a bold black line along each side and a creamy-white belly. I always get a chuckle seeing the squirrels on the feeders in late spring when their winter coats are molting out – a more ragged creature you might never see (unless you visit a zoo in the spring and see the mountain goats and bison shedding). Regardless of the season, though, the red squirrel always sports a white ring around each eye.

Although red squirrels are primarily associated with conifer forests, they are not limited to them. Mixed forests of conifers and hardwoods, and even solid stands of northern hardwoods also provide shelter to these rodents. Why are conifer forests, therefore, preferred? Possibly because this squirrel’s favored food is conifer seeds. Toward the end of summer and into fall, when the cones are still green, but plump with seeds, the squirrels scamper among the branches nipping a dozen or more cones from the trees. The fallen cones are then gathered and squirreled away in any one of the myriad caches the squirrel may have buried on its territory. Then, as winter’s grasp tightens on the forest, the squirrel has a good supply of food drying away in its larders, safe (mostly) from the maws of other seed-eaters.

Throughout the year other foods fill out the squirrel’s diet. In the spring tree sap and birds eggs (and later on the young birds themselves) add some variety to the remains of last fall’s harvest. Come summer, insects, mushrooms, and soft fruits are consumed. Seeds and the inner bark of trees and shrubs also make their way down the squirrel’s gullet. Even a small mammal or two may be added to the mix.

Should you not actually encounter a squirrel in your travels, you might still see signs of their presence. Look for midden piles, stumps or rocks that are scattered with, or even buried in, the shucked-off scales of pine, spruce or fir cones. These are the squirrels’ preferred feeding spots. I’ve seen midden piles that squirrels have used for years, where the depth of rotting scales and cone-cobs reaches two or more feet high. I’ve even heard of piles close to four feet in height. Another clue is pieces of mushrooms tucked away on tree branches. Apparently the squirrels like to dry their mushrooms; maybe they store better this way.

A third sign of red squirrel activity, often most evident in late winter, is nipped conifer twigs littering the ground. In all the courses I’ve taken about wildlife, including conversations with other biologists, no one knew the reason for this behavior. Two years ago, however, I was taking a tracking course and heard a very plausible explanation. Red squirrels are primarily arboreal, and they are creatures of habit. Like people, who like to trod on well-maintained trails, squirrels like to keep their paths through the trees clear of any obstructions, otherwise their travel might be hampered when trying to outrun a marten in hot pursuit. So, when the confers’ new growth starts to crowd the squirrel runs, the squirrel goes through and cuts the offending twigs off. These fall and litter the ground below the tree. Voila – mystery solved.

For the most part, red squirrels are cavity nesters, building their bark-lined nests in hollow trees, abandoned woodpecker holes, and in nest boxes (I’ve removed many a squirrel nest from the boxes along my bluebird trail). Sometimes, however, they will build their nests underground, or even exposed on a branch near the trunk of the tree.

While it is common up here for red squirrels to have one litter in the spring, it is possible for them to have two, the second occurring toward the end of summer. The young squirrels grow rapidly, and by the time they are three to three-and-a-half months old, they are independent, setting up their own territories and bullying the neighborhood.

For readers who are of a literary frame of mind, the red squirrel was known among the Ojibway as Adjidamoo, which Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote as Adjidau’mo in his epic poem “Hiawatha.” The Abanaki called the red squirrel Mikwa. Another old name for them is chickaree, probably after the sound they make when upset over some imagined (or real) infraction. And, my personal favorite, the word squirrel comes to us from the Greek language. In the original Greek, we have the words “skia,” which is shadow, and “ouros,” which is tail. Put together, they form “skiouros,” the shadow-tailed one (isn’t that just the most perfect name for a squirrel). Enter the Latin names used in modern taxonomy, and we have Sciurus, the genus for many of our squirrels, who are all in the family Sciuridae.

The next time you see a red squirrel, whether acting cute on your back porch, trying to con you out of birdseed or peanuts, or screaming at you from a branch overhead when you walk through the woods, you can smile knowingly because this small mammals secrets are no longer secret.

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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.

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