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Posts tagged “Sciurus carolinensis

Eastern Gray Squirrels Preparing For Winter

Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) eat about two pounds of food per week.  Nuts and other seeds are at the top of the list, but fungi, berries, bird eggs and nestlings, tree buds and sap are also consumed.  Because they stay active in winter, Eastern Gray Squirrels must store food in the fall in order to survive the colder months, and this food must be viable for the duration of the winter.  They are what are called “scatter-hoarders” – they bury each nut separately, not all in one spot. After digging a hole 1-2 inches deep with its front paws, the squirrel places a nut in the hole and forcibly puts it in place by pounding it into the ground with its front incisors.  It then fills the hole with soil and covers it with leaves.  A combination of memory (experiments found that this works for about 20 minutes) and after that, scent, allows squirrels to relocate a portion of their cached nuts.

Hickory nuts are the food of choice for Eastern Gray Squirrels, in part because they have twice the calories of an average acorn.  They also store well over winter, as they don’t germinate until spring.  As the accompanying photograph shows, Eastern Gray Squirrels, before burying the nuts (in this case, Shagbark Hickory, Carya ovata), methodically remove the fragrant husks, leaving a pile of small pieces of husk on the ground. It’s likely this practice developed in order to prevent competitors from smelling, digging up and consuming the squirrel’s winter food supply.

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Eastern Gray Squirrels Lining Nests

Congratulations to Wanda Rice, the first Naturally Curious reader to recognize sign made by a squirrel collecting nesting material. Many people thought it might be a porcupine at work, but porcupines, as “hellomolly” pointed out in her comment, do not leave strips of bark hanging, while squirrels do.

In the Mystery Photo, an Eastern Gray Squirrel had been shredding and collecting the thin bark of a Maple Sugar sapling to line its nest with.  Gray squirrels nest throughout the year, but nesting activity peaks during their two mating seasons (December -March, and May – July).  They build two types of nests – large, round, leafy nests among tree branches (dreys) and cavity nests, the latter being preferred during the colder months. Abandoned woodpeckers nests as well as natural-formed cavities provide additional protection in the winter from predators as well as the elements. (Drey broods are 40 percent less likely to survive than squirrels born in tree cavities — a hole no wider than three or four inches protects them from large predators such as raccoons.) Both types of nests are lined with soft material such as lichen, moss, grass, pine needles and shredded bark.

The effect of a squirrel’s stripping a tree’s bark depends on the extent of the damage. Usually a young tree is chosen due to the thinness of the bark and the ease with which it can be stripped.  Although a tree can survive with some of its bark removed, it will die if the damage is too severe or bark is stripped off around the tree’s circumference.  Stripped bark not only provides nesting material but the process of stripping the bark exposes the tree’s cambium layer which contains the nutrients and sugars a tree has produced and which squirrels readily consume. (Eastern Gray Squirrel photos by Margaret Barker Clark)

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Wing Prints In The Snow

2-7-19 gray squirrel kill_U1A2844Rarely have I had the good fortune to come upon a predator dining on its prey, but in this case, luck was with me. Seconds after I spotted a Red-tailed Hawk on the ground working on something it noticed me and flew away, perching within sight so as to keep an eye on its recent kill. This sighting eliminated some of the mystery of the story written in the snow. Wing prints would have revealed that the predator was airborne, and the wingspread might have narrowed the list of potential hawks/owls that it could have been, but determining the species would have been challenging without a sighting.

Although smaller rodents (voles, mice, etc.) make up a greater percentage of a Red-tail’s diet than larger ones, Gray Squirrels (whose remains are visible and were still warm) are consumed. The large numbers of Gray Squirrels on roadsides last fall reflected a booming population which most likely has provided ample food for many predators this winter, including this hawk. Interestingly, fur from the tail had been removed prior to the bird’s directing its attention to the internal organs of the squirrel. A quick retreat by this curious naturalist hopefully allowed the Red-tail to return to its meal.

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Eastern Gray Squirrel Diet Preferences

11-16-18 gray squirrel_U1A1563

The diet of Eastern Gray Squirrels is extremely varied. Depending on the season, buds, fruit (such as the pictured crabapples being consumed), maple and oak flowers, berries, seeds, fungi, the inner bark of maple and elm, insects, and young birds are eaten. However, nuts are by far the main component, which is reflected in their distribution; the range of Gray Squirrels coincides strikingly with that of oak and hickory forests. Especially during the colder part of the year, nuts, acorns and maple seeds, or samaras, that they have stored for winter consumption are the mainstay of their diet. (Research shows that Gray Squirrels recover 85% of the nuts they store.)

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Gray Squirrel Dreys

12-11-17 squirrel drey IMG_9660

With most deciduous trees having lost their leaves, squirrel nests, or dreys, are more noticeable. Red Squirrels, Eastern Gray Squirrels and Flying Squirrels all build dreys. Those of the Red Squirrel are round, grassy balls, 8” – 10” in diameter. In contrast, Gray Squirrel nests are usually larger and made of sticks and leaves. Flying Squirrel dreys are so high that they are rarely observed.

The dreys most commonly seen are made by Gray Squirrels. Usually 30 or more feet high, these shelters are typically built near the main trunk of the tree, in a crotch where several small branches meet, or on a strong, thick limb. Construction takes place in the summer or early fall, before trees have formed the abcission layers that cause leaves to separate and fall from branches. Therefore, the leaves on a drey’s branches tend to remain for quite some time, forming an effective water-shedding outer layer.

Branches are loosely woven into a foot-wide hollow sphere. The drey is lined with insulating grass, moss, leaves, and shredded bark. Usually there is one entrance/exit hole, facing the trunk (so as to keep rain out). Often squirrels build two dreys, giving themselves another shelter option should one nest be disturbed by a predator or overrun with parasites.

A drey is usually inhabited by one squirrel, but two are known to occupy a single drey in order to keep warm in the winter. Gray Squirrels give birth in late winter and again in the summer. A more protective tree cavity usually serves as a nursery in the winter, and the drey in summer. The average drey is only used for a year or two before it is abandoned.


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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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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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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