An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Squirrels

Eastern Gray Squirrels Swimming

e-gray squirrel swimming by Erin 2_H6A2563 copy (002)Imagine coming upon a stick floating in a large pond only to discover the “stick” had a head and tail and was making a beeline for the shore.  The fact that an Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) had paddled half a mile to get from one shore to the opposite shore of a pond shouldn’t have come as such a surprise, as this rodent has a long history of migratory swimming behavior, but it’s such an incongruous and unexpected event that it made my companion and me initially question our eyesight and then laugh out loud.

Historical reports suggest there have been many massive Eastern Gray Squirrel migrations in the United States, beginning in 1749 in Pennsylvania.   Records show the state paid three cents for each squirrel killed; over 640,000 squirrels were turned in for bounty.  One migration from Wisconsin in 1842 lasted four weeks and involved a half billion squirrels. Because of the numerous squirrel migrations, John James Audubon was erroneously convinced that the squirrels on the move were a separate species from the Eastern Gray Squirrel and gave them the scientific name Sciurus migratorius. (This proved to be inaccurate.)

During the 1800’s, thousands of squirrels would periodically move en masse across roads, fields and forests, and swim across lakes and rivers (including the Mississippi and Connecticut Rivers) in an effort to disperse. The consensus is that these mass movements were a response to local food conditions. They occurred mostly during the month of September following a year in which there was a large production of food (acorns).

The most recent mass migration of Eastern Gray Squirrels in eastern U.S. occurred in 1968, when a bumper crop of acorns in 1967 was followed with a corresponding bumper crop of young squirrels in 1968. By fall, as the first litter of the year left the nest, there was a severe shortage of food. As a result, massive numbers of acorn-eating squirrels dispersed in search of food.

One Eastern Gray Squirrel swimming across a New Hampshire pond does not a migration make, but it might not be a bad idea to keep an eye out for excessive numbers of paddling squirrels and/or road-killed rodents come September. (Photo by Erin Donahue)

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Red Squirrels Winter-proofing Nests

11-18-15 red squirrel2  032Red Squirrels are active year round and have nests that they can retreat to at any time of the year. These nests are used for shelter and rest, for over-wintering and as brood chambers. Red Squirrels build them in a variety of spots (tree cavities, old woodpecker holes, middens, rock piles, rotting logs, tree canopies) with a variety of material (twigs, branches, leaves, shredded grape bark, etc.).

Regardless of where they build their nest or what they build it with, Red Squirrels line it with fine, relatively soft material, such as grasses, bark fibers, feathers and fur. If a Red Squirrel happens upon potential nest-lining material, including an old dog towel hung out to dry, it will readily chew it into shreds and carry them back to its nest.

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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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Huddling to Keep Warm

flying squirrel3 IMG_8550Animals which remain active year round in northern New England use different strategies to survive the cold winter temperatures. Lowering metabolism through torpidity (on cold nights black-capped chickadees and other species reduce their body temperature as much as 22 degrees Fahrenheit from their daytime level in a process called regulated hypothermia), shivering, caching food in the fall, puffing out feathers to create insulating pockets of air, excavating tunnels under the snow, seeking protection in cavities – these are just a few of the life-saving techniques used by mammals and birds which neither migrate nor hibernate.

Another strategy which some of these animals use is to huddle together to conserve warmth. Huddling reduces the animal’s surface-area-to-volume ratio, since it turns many small animals into a single big animal. The larger the animal, the smaller the surface-area to volume ratio and the less relative area there is to lose heat.

Bluebirds and flying squirrels are two animals which huddle to keep warm. Eastern bluebirds may huddle together in a tree cavity or hollow log in groups of up to ten. Flying squirrels often huddle together in large communal nests, sometimes with populations numbering over two dozen squirrels, in an effort to keep warm. If this is not sufficient, the squirrels will enter a state of torpor until temperatures return to normal. (Thanks to Susan Parmenter for photo op.)

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Red Squirrel’s Winter Coat

2-20-14 winter red squirrel IMG_0220There is a marked seasonal difference in the Red Squirrel’s appearance due to its two annual molts (spring and fall). In the winter, a broad rusty-red band extends along its back, from its ears to the tip of its tail. The Red Squirrel’s thicker winter coat also includes ear tufts, which no other species of squirrel in the Northeast possesses. Come spring, when the squirrel sheds again, it loses its ear tufts and its new coat is closer to an olive-green color than red.

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Discerning Eastern Gray Squirrels

1-3-14 gray squirrel2 029In the fall, Eastern Gray Squirrels bury individual acorns from Red and White Oaks to sustain themselves through the winter. The acorns of Red Oaks have delayed germination – they can be stored up to six months before they start germinating. The acorns of White Oaks, however, have no such dormancy, and begin to germinate in the fall, soon after they fall from the tree. Once acorns sprout, they are less nutritious, as the seed tissue converts to the indigestible lignins that form the root. Gray Squirrels, as a means of “long-term cache management,” selectively remove the embryos from White Oak acorns (but not from Red Oak acorns) before burying them. Germination is prevented, and the storage viability of the White Oak acorns is extended by six months, equaling that of the Red Oak acorns.

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Red Squirrel Gardens in the Woods

6-4-13 sugar maple seedlingsi 036Red and Gray Squirrels remain active year round, and thus, need to have access to food throughout the year. In order for this to happen, seeds and nuts must be stored in the warmer months for consumption during the winter and early spring, when food is much harder to find. While Gray Squirrels tend to bury nuts and seeds individually for this purpose, Red Squirrels often cache numerous seeds (mostly conifers and maples) in one spot, dispersing these caches throughout the woods. During the winter Red Squirrels use their memory (and sometimes their sense of smell) to locate these buried treasures. Inevitably some are overlooked and in many of these cases, the seeds germinate. Finding little patches of multiple seedlings, such as this miniature stand of young Sugar Maples, is a good indication that at least one Red Squirrel overwintered in the vicinity.