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Gray Squirrels

Squirrels Digging For False Truffles

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Such creative and informed answers to yesterday’s Mystery Photo, and many that were right on the mark!  To set the stage, several 2” to 4”-deep holes riddled the ground under a stand of Eastern Hemlocks. Something had obviously been digging for something, but who and what? Close inspection of the holes revealed two things. The animal that had dug the holes had run into some thick hemlock roots, and with a clean 45° angle cut, had snipped them in order to have access to the soil beneath them. Secondly, some of the holes had pea- to marble-size, spherical tan objects that resembled puffballs both lying at the bottom and wedged into the sides of the holes.

Only because I had read Paul Rezendes’s Tracking & the Art of Seeing years ago did I recognize these holes and spherical structures within as the work of an animal looking for false truffles (a genus of fungi) to eat. By putting the various clues together – a hemlock stand, 3” to 6”-wide holes, clean incisor-snipped roots, and a few remnant truffles – the mystery at to what was being sought was solved.

As to who had done the digging, white-tailed deer, squirrels and porcupines all fancy false truffles. Both porcupines and squirrels have incisors that would make a clean cut through the roots. If porcupines had been digging here, there would likely be scat and/or quills lying about, which there were not. Thus, most likely it was a squirrel that had smelled, unearthed and eaten the false truffles.

Rezendes found that the truffles he discovered had dried spores inside them, and assumed that this made them undesirable to the animal that unearthed them and therefore they were not eaten. The spores of the truffles I found were not dried out, so I have no idea why they weren’t eaten, but I’m very glad they weren’t, as their presence allowed me to solve this mystery and see this phenomenon which I’ve been looking for for decades.

It may interest some to know that false truffles and Eastern Hemlocks have a symbiotic relationship. The fungi are attached to hemlock roots, so the minerals and water they absorb are available to the hemlocks. The hemlocks provide the fungi with sugars that they (hemlocks) produce through photosynthesis. Squirrels (and porcupines and white-tailed deer) and eastern hemlocks have a similar mutually beneficial relationship in that hemlocks provide the truffle-eaters with food, and the squirrels, porcupines and white-tailed deer disperse the spores of the truffles they’ve eaten. (Caution: Do not eat false truffles – they are considered toxic to humans.)

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Porcupines Foraging For Acorns

10-12-16-porcupine-20161011_4950If you live near a stand of Red Oak trees, your chances of seeing a Porcupine this fall are greater than average. At the end of August, when the apple supply has dwindled, Porcupines move on to important new food sources – acorns and beechnuts. While American Beech trees in central Vermont have not produced a bumper crop of beechnuts this year, Red Oaks are experiencing a very heavy mast crop. These acorns provide sustenance for many animals – Black Bears, Red and Gray Squirrels, Eastern Chipmunks and other small rodents, White-tailed Deer and Wild Turkeys, to name a few.

Porcupines are typically one of the first acorn consumers, as they are able to climb oaks and eat the acorns before they drop and are accessible to many of the other animals that are limited to foraging on the ground. If you see the tips of branches nipped off with acorn caps (but no acorns) still attached lying under an oak tree, it’s likely that a Porcupine has been dining in the tree and discarding branches after scooping out and eating the acorns.If the tree is large, the Porcupine may reside in the canopy for several days. (Thanks to Emma for photo op.)

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Gray Squirrels Digging Up Cached Acorns

1-27-16 gray squirrel cache 022If you have oak trees in the woods near you, chances are great that their acorns attracted wildlife this past fall, one of which was most likely a Gray Squirrel. Unlike Black Bears, Wild Turkeys and White-tailed Deer, which eat acorns immediately upon finding them, Gray Squirrels tend to cache acorns for winter consumption. They do so by burying them individually, often in fairly close proximity to where they find them. (Red Squirrels also cache food in the fall, but typically bury numerous seeds, mostly conifers and maples, in one spot.) When food becomes scarce, as it usually does this time of year, it is possible to find numerous holes dug in the snow, frequently with leaves and bits of acorn shells littering the snow around them. Tell-tale Gray Squirrel tracks leading to and from these holes identify the excavator.

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Red Squirrels Dining on Black Walnuts

1-4-15 black walnut 145The method in which a nut has been opened depends on both the species of nut as well as the species of animal that opened it. To complicate things further, it can be difficult to ascertain who opened a nut as a given species, such as the Red Squirrel, often has more than one way of opening a nut. However, a given squirrel usually chooses one way to open a nut and consistently uses that method, so that if you come upon a pile, or midden, of nuts eaten by a Red Squirrel, the nuts will most likely all have been opened in the same way.

The beveled edges on the hole in the pictured Black Walnut, the fact that it was opened from both sides (leaving the dividing rib between the two sides intact), and the central location of the holes are indications that a Red Squirrel dined on the nutmeat. The chewing of open, jagged holes on either side of a nut is a Red Squirrel’s most common method of opening a nut. Gray Squirrels tend to remove the entire side of a walnut, as opposed to chewing a hole in it.

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Rodents Recycling

3-13-15  gray squirrel 001Bones, antlers, skulls, turtle shells – all are recycled relatively quickly by rodents seeking a source of minerals, particularly calcium and phosphorus. All rodents possess four incisors, two in the front of the upper jaw and two opposite these, on the bottom jaw. These incisors, unlike other teeth, never stop growing. By gnawing on hard objects such as bones, rodents keep their incisors paired down. If an incisor is broken or lost, the opposing incisor will continue growing in a circle, having nothing to grind against, causing the rodent to die of starvation or from having its brain pierced (through the roof of the rodent’s mouth) by the ever-growing incisor. In this photograph, a gray squirrel is obtaining minerals and sharpening its incisors on a moose skull that a human wedged into the crotch of a tree.

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Red Squirrels & Sugar Maples

2-20-15 red squirrel2 IMG_7851We’re approaching what is often a very stressful time of year for many animals, including red squirrels. In the fall they feed on all kinds of conifer seeds, mushrooms, insects, nuts and the many fruits and berries that are available. They also have caches of cones, which they turn to once there is a scarcity of food elsewhere.

Once these caches are used up, usually by late winter or early spring, red squirrels turn to sugar maples for nutrients. Their timing is perfect, for this is when sap is starting to be drawn up from the roots of trees. Red squirrels are known to harvest this sap by making single bites into the tree with their incisors. These bites go deep enough to tap into the tree’s xylem tissue, which is where the sap is flowing. The puncture causes the sap to flow out of the tree, but the squirrel delays its gratification. It leaves and returns later to lick up the sugary residue that remains on the branch after most of the water has evaporated from the sap.

Not only do red squirrels help themselves to sugar maple sap, but they have developed a taste for the buds, and later in the spring, the flowers, of both red and sugar maples. Red squirrels are not the only culprits – gray squirrels and flying squirrels also make short work of buds and flowers from these trees.

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Gray Squirrels Caching Nuts

9-26-14 gray squirrel with nuts 015Many species of squirrels, including the red squirrel, are “larder hoarders.” Each individual stores its food in one central area that it defends aggressively against invaders. Eastern gray squirrels, however, are “scatter hoarders,” collecting and burying one nut at a time throughout home ranges up to 7 acres in size. It has been estimated that up to 25 percent of the nuts that gray squirrels cache are stolen by other gray squirrels. Researchers have found that gray squirrels engage in “deceptive caching.” Carrying a nut, a squirrel will repeatedly dig a hole and then fill it in, without depositing the nut. They also will cover a spot with leaves, even though they have not buried anything in this location. Where gray squirrel densities are high, the squirrels often keep a cache in its original location for only about three days before moving it to a new location.

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