The populations of all forms of wildlife continuously rise and fall as a number of highly changeable environmental factors influences the success, or failure of each species. While variations in the abundance, or scarcity of many of our shy and secretive creatures, like the short-tailed shrew, flying squirrel and ermine, go completely unnoticed, the ups and downs in the number of animals that maintain a high profile can be quite evident, especially to anyone that spends a fair amount of time outdoors. In my neighborhood this year, there is a definite upsurge in the population of red squirrels, as there are more of these small, yet conspicuous rusty-tan rodents running around than in recent years.
Regardless of whether its population is peaking, or has crashed, the red squirrel is still described by many naturalists as the most often seen mammal in the Adirondacks. The diurnal habits, vocal inclinations, willingness to live in close proximity to humans, and craving for sunflower seeds make this rodent hard to overlook.
The red squirrel strongly prefers to reside in northern forests, particularly those composed of spruce, fir and pine. This resourceful tree dweller is also known to adapt to a life in mixed woodlands, which are widespread throughout the Park. It is in these settings that this herbivore is able to find and gather the cones of various softwoods, each of which house numerous small, yet highly nutritious, winged seeds. During the morning and late afternoon toward the end of summer, the red squirrel begins its mission to accumulate as many unopened cones as possible. By venturing to the very end of twigs near the top of pines and spruce trees, this agile tree dweller quickly gnaws through the stem that connects the cone to the tree. After severing several dozen cones from the twigs and allowing them to drop to the ground, this hardy mammal descends to the forest floor to collect as many of the fallen cones as it can locate. These still unopened structures are then placed in a small subterranean chamber close by to keep them cool and moist, which prevents them from opening and spilling their nearly mature seeds. Occasionally, a red squirrel will simply stack its cones in a pile in some sheltered spot, like near a rotting log, close to a mound of brush, or next to the base of a large tree where they are unlikely to be dried by the sun.
Because the red squirrel frequently chews on living evergreens in cutting and handling cones, it often gets small droplets of sap in its mouth and over its fur. While this gooey resin discourages most creatures from coming into contact with a conifer whose bark is oozing pitch in several spots, or a freshly fallen cone which may have droplets of sap on it, the red squirrel never seems to mind.
The seeds of maples and ash, along with wild black cherries and beechnuts are also collected by this rodent, as are several types of mushrooms and apples. In order to preserve these last two items for storage, the red squirrel places them in the crotch of a tree well above the forest floor to allow them to dry in the late summer sun. Occasionally, the squirrel will tuck such food items in the space that forms between pieces of firewood that have been stacked in a well ventilated woodshed.
Like the chipmunk, the red squirrel is highly territorial, and the size of the patch of forest that an individual claims depends primarily on food availability. During years when the seed crop is good, a red squirrel may only defend a small piece of land. Patrolling a smaller area often requires a smaller expenditure of energy. When forced to regularly travel a longer distance away from a central nest to ensure that intruders are not utilizing the food resources of its territory, a red squirrel will burn more calories along with making itself more vulnerable to attack from a predator. Additionally, as it spends a greater portion of time away from its central stockpiles of winter food, these caches become more prone to being raided by a neighbor.
This year appears to have been a highly successful reproductive season for this rodent, as there are many young squirrels running around in the forests near my home. Territorial boundaries have already become established, as the number of confrontations and fights has gradually subsided over the course of the past few weeks. Now, nearly every time I see a red squirrel, it is carrying either a cone, or an apple in its mouth. I realize that some people would take this frantic behavior to develop massive caches of food as a sign that we are in for a hard winter. I simply take it as a sign that the seed crop around my home this year has been good, and that I may notice a goshawk or sharp-shinned hawk in the area in the not too distant future.
Photo courtesy Wikimedia user.