Monday, March 4, 2013

Red Squirrels and the Sounds of Spring

Red SquirellThere is a pronounced silence in our forests throughout the winter, except for the occasional sound of a flock of chickadees and the wind blowing through the canopy. Those forms of wildlife that remain active during this season of cold and snow are forced to concentrate all of their energy on finding the limited amount of food present and maintaining a suitable internal temperature, rather than on expending effort generating a noise. As winter’s grip gradually relents in early March and the problems of survival ease, one of the first voices to be heard again in both wilderness settings and residential sections of the Park is the angry chatter of the red squirrel.

The noisy, razzing squawks repeatedly produced by this common forest dweller are used primarily to proclaim ownership of a particular parcel of woodland. By vocalizing its aggravated mood, the red squirrel notifies any nearby squirrel neighbor that a trespasser has been spotted and an attack is likely unless the invader quickly exits the area. During most of the winter, when temperatures are near or below zero and the wind makes activity among the branches a challenge, the highly territorial temperament of the red squirrel diminishes, and this antisocial creature becomes more tolerant of the presence of other red squirrels.

It has been observed by numerous researchers that several red squirrels may congregate in a single nest in order to share body heat during times when arctic air settles over the region. Additionally, if a well stocked bird feeder is available, 2 or 3 neighbors will tolerate each others presence as they forage on the ground for spilled seed during the middle of the day when the air warms enough for them to leave the confines of a nest. As the cold moderates and the red squirrel is not as adversely affected by the weather, it gradually redevelops its normally intense antisocial style of behavior and confronts any individual that intrudes into its territory.

While the red squirrel periodically strays into the territory of its neighbors as it searches for food, March is the month when a breeding urge strikes. This causes this feisty creature to begin venturing well outside the limits of its domain in an attempt to locate a member of the opposite sex.

As is the case with most mammals, a female that is nearing her heat period emits a special scent that alerts any wandering males in the area to her condition. In her attempt to increase the chances that a male will come across her trail, the female also travels outside of her territory during her brief heat period. Immediately upon detecting her scent trail, a male will quickly track down the object of his desire and the two engage in a brief reproductive encounter that is said by researchers to last for only a few minutes. Following this act, the two go their separate ways, with the male continuing his search for additional females. The female red squirrel gradually makes her way back to her territory, but will mate with any other male that she encounters along the route. By breeding numerous times, a female maximizes the chances of her eggs being successfully fertilized.

Males that are on the prowl for romance periodically return to their territory to prevent a wandering male from attempting to establish a territory in that section of forest. Intruders that are encountered are immediately driven into retreat and are scolded for encroaching.

Since red squirrels are currently not in their own territory as much as they are during the rest of the year, angry chatter is not as often heard as in mid to late spring. Also, vocalization draws the attention of predators, and a dark-rusty colored creature easily stands out against a background of snow. Lastly, the end of winter is the time when the red squirrel population is at its lowest point of the year. With an owl visiting the area for a few weeks, or a marten periodically roaming that generally vicinity, red squirrel numbers can easily drop to a level that allows open territories to exist. This permits remaining adults the opportunity to travel for a considerable distance without being verbally harassed by an owner.

In another 10 weeks this all changes as the young from this year begin to wander away from their mother’s nest to explore their surrounding and look for a vacant piece of forest to claim as theirs.

In the next several weeks, especially following the return of our first wave of migratory birds, sounds again become a common part of our forest, with the voice of the red squirrel nearing the top of the list as the most annoying.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia user Cephas.

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Tom Kalinowski

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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