Friday, February 28, 2003
School vacation week was coming up, February 17 through February 21, and since the Mosquito would not be publishing that week, I assumed I would be spending more time at the dining room table looking out at our bird feeders which attract a fair number of birds at this time of year. Not only would I be looking for the pileated woodpecker who frequently pays a call to our suet feeder, but I would keep my eye out for that frisky little fellow the red squirrel and write a piece about him for the Biodiversity Corner.
I had written about this same red squirrel back in October 19, 2001, a month after 9/11, on the Friends & Neighbors page • "...an Estabrook Road mystery has been solved. Twice during the last month, a resident of the road [that was me] has hoisted an American flag up a rustic, wooden flagpole on the property in a show of patriotism. However, within days of initially raising the flag, the resident found it in shreds on the ground with pieces removed and carried away. The flag was replaced, but again the Stars and Strips came under attack, so the citizen brought the second flag down before it could be completely destroyed. By this time, however, the delinquent had been caught red- handed, or rather red-pawed • a small red squirrel, busy lining his hideaway for the winter months ahead. The resident has declined to press charges."
This past week I set out to observe the squirrel's habits and activities to better understand the creature. Unfortunately, the only time the squirrel was seen for any length of time was on Sunday, February 16, the day before the President's Day snowstorm. There he was frantically racing back and forth between the white ash trees with their suet feeders, on to straddling, in acrobatic style, the wire to the seed feeder, nearer the house. Then back across the wire, down the tree, scurrying across the snow bank to the trees in back, all the while warding off the grey squirrels or birds that happened to be in his path. Finally the squirrel returned to one of the ash trees, descended the trunk with the bits of suet and seeds he had gathered and disappeared below the surface of the snow at its base. Thinking back on his behavior at the time, he must have sensed a snowstorm was in the making.
I never caught sight of the squirrel again until four days later, at 6 on Thursday morning, when I saw him for ten minutes in the same area scrambling for food and disappearing down a tunnel, which on inspection he had dug near the path to the bird feeders.
Description: The red squirrel is about half the size of the gray squirrel. Measurement ranges (top of head to tip of tail) from 11 to 14 inches. The bushy tail is nearly as long as the head and body. Weights vary from 5.8 to 8.4 ounces. It has a rusty-red color on top with a whitish-yellowish belly and underparts.
Distribution: The squirrels are transcontinental from Alaska to northern Quebec, occurring as far south as South Carolina and Tennessee in the mountains. They are to be found mainly in coniferous forests of hemlock, spruce, fir or pine.
Ecology: The squirrel's nest is located in a variety of locations • knotholes or other hollows in trees, on limbs near the tree trunk, or in burrows made in the ground under the roots of the tree. The nest is made of cones, leaves and twigs and lined with fibrous bark and other soft materials (such as American flags!) Each squirrel makes its home for a long period in or about one tree.
Behavior: Red squirrels are active primarily between dawn and dusk. They are active throughout the year except during stormy winter weather when they go underground, digging extensive tunnels to their hidden supplies of food under the snow, rarely appearing on the surface until the weather clears. Red squirrels feed on a great variety of seeds, nuts, fungi, insects and occasionally eggs and young bird in their nests. They especially enjoy the sap of maple trees in the spring.
The noisy red squirrels, often heard before being seen, are aggressive and unsociable, defending their territories and food supplies from other squirrels and birds. They are vociferous and can become so enraged at an intruder that they stamp their feet, jerk their tails and chatter angrily in a long staccato "chir-r-r-r, chir-r-r-r". When not confronted, they chatter away cheerfully or remain silent.
Red squirrels are agile creatures known to jump as far as eight feet. They are also strong swimmers and can dive a foot or two below the surface of water. Their breeding season is from late January to September. Because of their energy and wide variety of activities, the red squirrel is always an engaging creature to watch. I can testify to that.
Burt, W. H. & R. P. Grossenheider • A Field Guide to the Mammals, 3rd ed. (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1976).
Godin, A. J. • Wild Mammals of New England (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1977).
Nelson, E. W. • Wild Animals of North America (National Geographic Society, Washington, 1918.
Marilyn Harte, a longtime resident of Carlisle, observes wildlife from her home near the Estabrook Woods. She is the feature editor for the Mosquito.
© 2003 The Carlisle Mosquito