Red squirrels: 6 ounces of pure nastiness

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A walk through an evergreen forest on a cold, late fall or winter day calms the soul. Wind whispers through the limber boughs overhead, and the fragrant aroma of conifers completes the experience.

In such settings, I usually find a log, sit and drink in the scene. Often, however, a loud staccato chatter shatters the peace.

Squirrel

The sound is too insistent and lasts too long to be a bird. Scan the branches overhead for the singer, and it’s a red squirrel, 6 ounces of pure orneriness.

It’s no wonder that, except for mating, red squirrels lead rather solitary lives. They constantly bicker among themselves, with larger gray and fox squirrels, with blue jays, and any other creature that dares to venture into their territories.

Red squirrels make up for what they lack in size with pure pugnacity. About twice the size of chipmunks (2.5 to 4.5 ounces) and half the size of gray squirrels (about 1 pound), red squirrels (4.5 to 8 ounces) split the difference. (For comparative purposes, southern flying squirrels weigh 1.5 to 3 ounces and fox squirrels tip the scales at about 2 pounds.)

In winter, a red squirrel’s handsome rusty pelage is obvious, and with binoculars, tufts of hair on the tips of the ears are visible.

In the summer the fur turns grayer, and the ear tufts disappear.

Throughout the year, however, a red squirrel’s most diagnostic feature is its prominent white eye rings.

Though mature coniferous forests of white pine and hemlock are the red squirrel’s preferred habitat, they also occur in mixed woods and even pure deciduous stands. I see one occasionally here on the ridge, though evergreens are few and scattered.

Food

Favorite foods include seeds of evergreen cones, acorns, walnuts, hickory nuts, beechnuts, hazelnuts, fruits, buds, insects, and mushrooms, including species that are poisonous to other animals.

From April through August, red squirrels turn carnivorous — they love songbird eggs and nestlings. Red squirrels are active year-round.

Like other squirrels, they forage madly in the fall, but unlike other species, reds store their food in large caches called middens. The larder may be at the base of a tree, in a natural tree cavity, or even underground.

Typically, middens are dark, damp and low in oxygen. These conditions prevent seeds from germinating while preserving their nutritional value.

Over the course of several years, a red squirrel may store several bushels of food. During the winter, red squirrels rely on their middens to survive. Perhaps this is why they are so territorial.

Without middens, reds could not survive winters when mast production is poor. Trees do not produce the same amount of mast each year, so by storing large quantities of food, red squirrels can survive years of complete mast failure.

Mating

In February, red squirrels briefly shed their solitary ways. They pair briefly and promiscuously. Males mate with as many females as will have them. After mating, the sexes part.

The female raises the litter alone in a natural tree cavity, birdhouse or leaf nest. After a pregnancy of 35 to 38 days, four or five pups are born. The young grow very slowly. Their eyes don’t open until they are about 30 days old, and weaning occurs about 10 weeks after birth.

When conditions permit, red squirrels sometimes raise a second litter in late summer.

Like flying squirrels, gray squirrels, and fox squirrels, red squirrels sometimes get into attics and set up housekeeping. A solution is to catch squirrels with live traps, seal all possible entry holes, and trim trees so that no branches come within 10 feet of the roof.

Box

You might also keep them out of the house by providing alternate shelter. A squirrel box measures 8 to 10 inches square and 12 to 16 inches high. Cut a 3-inch diameter hole at the top of one of the sides. Position the hole so that it is near the trunk of the tree.

Then hang the nest box 10 to 15 feet above the ground. If there are squirrels in the neighborhood, a nest box won’t go unoccupied for long.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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