Sunday, December 27, 2015
Rats of the Trees: The Eastern Gray Squirrel's (Sciurius carolinensis) Life History
(A gray squirrel enjoying some tasty catkins or tree pollen, one of the few foods that spring holds for seed and nut loving squirrels) Squirrels eat anything from flowers, nuts, leaves and fruits to insects, bird eggs and fledglings. Hickory nuts are the favorite food of squirrels. From late spring to early winter, squirrels collect food on the roam to eat, mainly while endeavoring on other chores. But starting in summer, gray squirrels gradually build up excess food in caches. Each squirrel may have hundreds of different caches in its territory, some only holding one or two nuts. This behavior is called "scatter-hoarding", and is a beneficial part of the propagation of forest trees because squirrels forget the location of a good portion of their food stores and caches. These caches are highly desired by crow-related jays, grackles and blackbirds. One of these birds (most of the time a jay), will watch a squirrel from a low branch, remaining silent until the squirrel has finished burying its spoils. The jay will then swoop to the ground and dig up the food, flying it into the trees where it can crack and eat the nut with its sharp, thick bill. But if a squirrel notices a jay watching it dig, it will pretend to bury its food and hide its bounty in its cheek pouches. Then, while the jay excavates the false cache, the squirrel will dig another store close by.
(A warm-weather drey high in some entangled sycamore branches)Squirrels make three kinds of homes. The first is used in cold weather, and either looks like a colossal leaf pile or a worn tree hole high in the canopy. This nest may be used by several squirrels in the same territory. These groups of squirrels are called scurries. The second type of squirrel nest is the nest of a bachelor or nut-collecting squirrel. It appears as a thick clump of dead leaves and can be exactly the same as a crow's nest, and it sometimes is the abandoned nest of one of these birds. This nest can also be used as a universal warm-weather shelter for all squirrels as well. Squirrels reside in one last shelter, one that is only used to raise young in early spring and late summer, during each breeding season. Many squirrels will make small, soft nests of leaf litter, gnawed bark, and old fur, sometimes using pieces of garbage, either in open branches or in tree holes. Squirrel nests are known as dreys or drays. Gray squirrels have some intriguing behavior as well, being extremely social with one another. Boars (males) are assertive and often tussle with their neighbors. Sows are more docile, being instructive and strict with her kits (young). Pairs of breeding squirrels isolate themselves and frighten away any squirrel or animal that may threaten them. Boar squirrels will chase sows up and down multiple trees throughout winter, sometimes being rejected and attacked by chased sows, or stopped and threatened by competing boars. Once the male and female squirrel have settled down in a breeding drey, they both work to provide food and care for the nestling squirrels. Squirrel kits, as soon as they can see, hear and run, are taken out into the trees to be taught. The mother takes the job of teaching the young, and the male normally leaves. These young squirrels will soon leave their mother and make easy targets for hunters, aiding in the creation of a "Spring Squirrel Season". Some gray squirrel look-alikes and similar species are rarer, but are often seen in their specific habitats. The Red Squirrel, Pine Squirrel, Chickaree, Fairydiddle, or in the Southern Appalachians, the Mountain Boomer, is a noisy and tiny squirrel that is also unique. It is native to only high-mountain forests in spruces, firs and pines, feeding almost exclusively on conifer cones. They are half the size of a gray squirrel, have a bright red coat, and possess long, tufted ears. Another squirrel is the fox squirrel, which can be black, red, or gray, identified by its enormous size and yellow belly. The fox squirrel normally lives alone, chasing other squirrels, even some of its own kind, away from its home in open areas. They spend the most time on the ground of any tree squirrel and are the largest squirrel in North America. Fox squirrels live in fields with fruit and nut trees, feeding mainly on walnuts, butternuts, drupes (fruit and berries), green plants, flowers and some animal matter. fox squirrels rarely venture into forests. They will kill or chase away gray squirrels to claim their own large territory. Flying squirrels (both the Northern and Southern) are also easy to confuse with gray squirrels while on the ground. Flying squirrels are secretive, nocturnal and look more like a bat than a squirrel when gliding through the air. Their glides are often from branch to branch, used to gain speed quickly. These are sometimes identified at dawn and dusk when speeding to their tiny, hidden dreys. While the other squirrels mentioned are tree squirrels, the next is the only native member of the chipmunk family (family being used only as a collective term), a group of small, striped ground squirrels. The Eastern Chipmunk, a striped relative of western ground squirrels and "striped gophers", is the only native member of its family anywhere near the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Some predators of the squirrel include raptors, snakes, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, pets and humans. Also, the least weasel, the typical European "weasel" that is also native to the Southern Appalachians, will go on killing sprees and slaughter massive amounts of rodents (including chipmunks and squirrels), birds, herptiles and anything else that moves up to the size of a rabbit. They will store these carcasses in their tunnel or the tunnel of a prey animal (such as a rabbit, ground squirrel, shrew, mouse or vole).
(This trapped sow squirrel may look sodden and miserable in its rainy atmosphere, but I assure you that it was released without harm. The squirrel is actually better off; it received a fattening meal of hickory nuts and regained its freedom quickly.)
(Two gray squirrels climbing and calling just outside their cold-weather drey. Can you spot the site of the drey?)
(Here are some gray squirrel tracks in sand under the cover of winter box elder trees)
(Squirrel tracks in snow, which lead to an uncovered mast cache.)
(A gray squirrel investigating on two legs, acting much like a tiny bear.)
I hope you now appreciate squirrels for what they are and won't overlook these animals like many other people. So whenever you see a squirrel, think about its interesting lifestyle and amazing tactics. If possible, watch it as well; it shouldn't disappoint you. Happy Trails, Critter Cade