Monday, March 14, 2011

The Gray Squirrel in the Adirondacks

Anyone living in a town or hamlet in the Adirondacks knows that the gray squirrel is a common member of the wildlife community within the Park. This bushy-tailed rodent ranks among the most frequently seen creatures, especially if a few individuals in the neighborhood are maintaining bird feeders. Yet, as common as this skilled aerialist may appear, the gray squirrel is not as widely distributed throughout the Park as it would seem.

The gray squirrel is a creature that is heavily dependent on acorns for its staple source of food. It is in mature stands of oaks that the population of this species reaches its natural peak. In areas where oaks occur only sporadically, the gray squirrel has a far more challenging time surviving.

In such locations, it is forced to harvest the seeds and nuts from other mature hardwoods, such as maples, ash, beech, and wild black cherry. Like other tree squirrels, the gray will also consume a variety of other edibles, such as mushrooms, berries and fruits, and an occasional tree bud and bug, yet all of these items are seldom eaten when acorns are readily available.

In the valleys that surround the Adirondacks, there are sporadic clusters of oaks that allow for a healthy gray squirrel population in these settings. Additionally, the presence of numerous human dwellings with many supporting feeders helps bolster the ecological success of the gray in these lowlands areas.

When traveling upland into the Park, the climate turns colder and the forests gradually become devoid of oaks. A hike along any Central Adirondack trail shows impressive stands of mature hardwoods, almost all lacking oaks. While there are a few scattered areas where oaks occur, these are the exception in our northern woodlands.
Without oaks and their meaty mast, and with exposure to the rigors of a harsher climate, those gray squirrels that periodically migrate through our forests in their attempt to establish a territory typically find only starvation and death.

Occasionally, a few of these wayward grays stumble upon a feeding oasis just outside the window of a human dwelling. These individuals quickly become skilled at harvesting the rich source of seeds that continuously materialize at such sites. And those that encounter devices that prevent them from directly accessing the seeds eventually learn that enough seeds inevitably spill onto the ground for them to collect, and that there are also other scraps of human edibles which become available to them to keep them alive.

Throughout the winter, the gray squirrel tends not to stray very far, or very often, from its nest. On days when the temperature struggles to get above zero, and when a strong north wind creates an intolerable chill factor, the gray squirrel may not leave the confines of its home. Despite its dense coat of fluffy fur, this creature is known to remain in its shelter for several days at a time during the dead of winter.
As early March arrives, the gray squirrel seldom, if ever, refrains from staying inside, as its mating season occurs during this time of year. Regardless of weather conditions, the males develop the urge to venture far and wide in a search of breeding partners. Like the chipmunk and red squirrel, the gray is extremely promiscuous and mates with any and all females that accept his advances.

Because of its skill at maneuvering through the tops of trees, the gray squirrel attempts to travel through the forest canopy as much as possible, as these elevated avenues contain much less snow and expose it to far fewer predators. Yet, even when an exceptionally deep snow pack hinders its movement on the ground, the gray readily plunges into the snow in order to follow a trail made by a female that is nearing her heat period.

While early March is still a time of snow and cold in the Adirondacks, it is also a time when people may see several unfamiliar gray squirrels visiting their feeders. These are probably males that reside around the various islands of human settlements scattered throughout the Park. However, if you happen to live in the middle of nowhere, and your nearest neighbor is located miles away, chances are that you will not see any gray squirrels, even during this period in March.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

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