The Red Squirrel
by Linda Spielman
The red squirrel has a presence that is out of proportion for such a small creature. It is energetic and expressive, and if you happen to be hiking a trail which passes through its territory you’ll hear its loud, scolding chatter urging you to go away. Its leafy summer nest may be visible in the crotch of a branch above your head, and a look around may reveal mounds of feeding debris at the bases of large trees. At your backyard bird feeder the red squirrel is feisty and combative, and birds may send out alarm calls at the sight of one.
The range of the red squirrel extends across boreal Canada and south into the mixed forests of the northeast and the Appalachian mountains. This little rodent is active in all four seasons and is as much at home in our region as it is in the snowy north. In warm weather its diet includes a broad range of seeds, buds, flowers, nuts, fruits, and even occasional insects and bird eggs, but it relies on the cones of conifers for its winter food supply. During late summer and fall it is busy in the tops of evergreens clipping cones and dropping them to the ground. The cones are then carried underground and stored in cavities around roots and rocks. This “larder hoarding” behavior is particularly advantageous when deep snow covers the ground. The red squirrel doesn’t need to search for individually buried food items as does its cousin the gray squirrel, but instead visits one of its food pantries whenever it is hungry. But putting all your cones in one—or a few—larders has its own risks. If another squirrel locates your food supply, all of your hard work may be carried off before you can eat it. So red squirrels guard their core territories fiercely against other squirrels and anyone else who gets too close.
At Hammond Hill red squirrels find lots of suitable habitat. The native white pines and hemlocks produce cones filled with seeds, and red squirrels are always willing to add some acorns and nuts to their diets. But spruces provide the richest food source. During the twentieth century Norway Spruce plantations were established in many parts of central New York, and Hammond Hill is still home to extensive stands. Large mounds of discarded cone scales and cores have accumulated at the bases of the largest of these trees. Some of these middens are four feet high and six feet across, and their size attests to the many generations of red squirrels that have thrived in these spruce stands. The entrances to the squirrels’ underground holdings are round openings a few inches across, and they may be in a midden, as shown in the photo, or in the ground.
In spite of their strident vocalizations, you may notice that when you are in the woods you don’t often see red squirrels (or grays either, for that matter). Town dwelling squirrels, both red and gray, are much more visible. They are accustomed to our daily activities, and as long as we stay inside our houses and cars, sit on park benches, or walk on sidewalks, they are willing to feed, rest, and interact with each other in plain view. But in the woods squirrels are more wary, and with good reason. Coyotes, gray and red foxes, fishers, weasels, minks, bobcats, hawks, and snakes are all known to hunt red and gray squirrels, and to a forest dwelling squirrel we, too, are seen as potentially dangerous. But if you’re quiet and patient you can watch woodland squirrels. I like to approach silently and find a comfortable sit spot at the edge of a Hammond Hill spruce stand. At first I may be assaulted by harsh alarm calls, but after about fifteen minutes things generally quiet down and the birds and animals return to their normal activities. If I’m patient, I might notice a red squirrel perched in a tree or catch sight of one moving about on the ground. It really gets interesting when the squirrel climbs to a comfortable branch with a spruce cone in its mouth. It holds the cone upside down in its front feet (which are almost as dexterous as the feet of a raccoon), bites the scales off, and consumes the paired seeds which lie beneath each scale. This doesn’t take long: the cone is rapidly processed from the base to the tip and the scales fly in all directions. Within ten minutes there’s nothing left but the denuded cone core.
Whether you watch them out your kitchen window or from a woodland sit spot, red squirrels are fascinating creatures, and our region is richer for their presence.