'The biggest scold in the woods'

Recently this column focused on the pine marten and noted that it can be the “worst nightmare a red squirrel can have.”

Someone inquired about this smallest of our native squirrels and how to identify them.

“Easy – just wait until one spots you and sits up on a high limb and scolds you for as long as you are in the area. When it comes to a noisy, irritating, shrill and non-stop noise-maker, a red squirrel is the biggest scold in the woods.”

The red squirrel is hung with a tongue-twister scientific name, Tamiasciurus vulgaris; it is a member of the tree squirrel family with approximately 40 sub species.

Size ranges from six to eight inches in length, with a bushy tail of approximately the same length as their body. As their common name implies, their fur ranges from light red to a dark red which can appear almost black.

Their diet consists of seeds and cones that are found in the coniferous forests of the world. It also is an eater of bird eggs, young in the nests of both birds and small mammals, and will eat anything that won’t eat it first.

The red squirrel will often build its nest in the fork of a large tree. It is constructed of twigs and needles, with leaves and grass woven in between. An inter-sleeping chamber is four to six inches across, and is lined with as much soft material as the squirrel can find. This would include bird feathers, animal fur and dried grass or bark. The squirrel will continue to add layers of material to the outside of the nest, to insulate and waterproof it, as much as possible. Red squirrels have also been known to move into an abandon bird’s nest or den up in a tree cavity.

One study notes that while the red squirrel, like all squirrels, stores food for the coming year, it is a “wasteful” saver, collecting more food than it could possibly eat. It will often pick off pine cones “green” from a tree. These cones will never ripen, and therefore will not be used as food.

The red squirrel is also fond of mushrooms. It will tear them into stripes and let them dry. While the red squirrel is herbivorous, it is notorious for eating bird eggs in tree nests; it also eats insects when hungry.

The red squirrel, unlike its gray cousin, stores all of its food in one place – a practice called “larderhoarding.” The storage area is called a “midden.” (This should not be confused with the other definition of midden, which is an area of animal droppings.)

Red squirrels mate in the late winter or early spring in a mating ritual beginning with a chase when several males compete for one female. The males will chase each other through the trees jumping from branch to branch as the female watches - then chooses the male she believes is the strongest. That male will follow her until she is ready to mate. After mating, the male will return to its territory, leaving the female to raise the litter. The period of gestation is an average of 40 days for red squirrels.

There are normally four or five born in the litter. The female squirrel will nurse the babies for their first five or six weeks. During this time the babies will not leave the nest and are completely dependent on their mother for milk.

About six weeks after birth, the baby squirrels will be removed from the nest, and the mother will teach them all the skills they will need to survive on their own. Once these babies leave the nest they are referred to as juveniles. The juvenile squirrels will play together, practice nest building, find and store food. They need to master these skills since the mother will not allow them back in her nest. They must find a home and store food before winter arrives, or they will perish.

The red squirrel has few natural enemies. Hawks and owls have been able to fly down and catch some squirrels as they travel across the ground. Mink’s have been known to take one or more of the young squirrels from their nest, while the mother squirrel is gone. But, none of these predators can catch an adult squirrel when it is moving through a tree. The bobcat and fox will try to out run a squirrel on the ground, but again once the squirrel is up in a tree, it is relatively safe from its pursuer.

Unless the pursuer is a pine marten. That, as earlier noted, is a red squirrel’s worst nightmare.