Sunday, December 27, 2015

Rats of the Trees: The Eastern Gray Squirrel's (Sciurius carolinensis) Life History


(A gray squirrel threatening its "picture-hunter" with roar-like yowls and rapid tail flicks deep in the cover of a white pine tree.) The Eastern Gray Squirrel, Common Gray Squirrel, Bushytail, Tree Rat or simply Grey (or Gray) Squirrel is possibly one of the most common and most overlooked creature in the US. Some people merely call these animals "tree rats" and think them boring and useless. Some people keep them as pets, but this is cruel and makes most of the the squirrels miserable with longing for their treetop territories. But wild squirrels can even become quite tame, especially those in theme parks and in the trees above outdoor restaurants, eating and begging for popcorn that is tossed to them or snatching french fries from the hands of unsuspecting observers. This, of course, makes a common animal get a new respect for its courage to approach enormous beings many times larger than itself. But some get a practical use from hunters and survivalists. Squirrel meat is common winter and spring fare in the Appalachian Mountains, and a sought-after and regularly eaten delicacy in England (where gray squirrels have recently been introduced). Squirrel Gravy, Squirrel Dumplings and Fried Squirrels are often seen as local dinner. Since there are many squirrels, and that gray squirrels are the second most hunted animal in the US (only ranking after the white-tailed deer), you can imagine that rural squirrels can be much more cautious than the squirrels of residential areas. Squirrels frightened by the approach of larger animals (humans, bobcats, wild canines, pets, raptors, etc.)  will normally do one of two things. The least common response is that the squirrel will clamber to a low, flat tree branch and squeeze into a tight ball, paws folded, and reclining on its haunches. It will then raise its tail and lay it across the back and between the ears. After it feels secure, it will make a roar-like yowl, as quoted above, that resembles an old, creaky wooden door. You have probably heard this call before in the winter, issued by angry squirrels that reject the courting displays of other squirrels, but this will be extensively discussed later in the post. The threatening squirrel, after posing and calling, will either come down the tree or ascend the tree, depending on if you back away or advance forwards, respectively. The other escape method of the squirrel, sometimes done after the first method, involves the squirrel rapidly ascending a tree. This is usually not just any tree in the woods, however. A frightened squirrel will give a short, abrupt chase that ends with the squirrel being "treed", or trapped in a forest's canopy. Why the squirrel does this is for an unapparent reason, but with deliberate contemplation, it is easy to reason that if a squirrel scales a many-branched tree, bobcats and gray foxes can scale the tree after it much too easily. If a squirrel ascends a sapling or a dead tree, predators such as squirrel-dogs, coydogs and hungry bears can fell the tree and ingest the dazed squirrel. So squirrels will normally engage a chase across deadfall such as elevated logs and exposed stones, normally retreating to the trunk of high, almost branch-less self-pruning trees such as oaks and tulip-trees, using the aid of ramps that usually are half-fallen trees, woodpiles, or powerlines.
(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).
(A squirrel feeder set on one of two backyard hickory trees , which never drop their fruit due to hungry squirrels.)To attract squirrels, set a squirrel feeder full of deer corn. These wooden birdhouse-like structures can be nailed to a tree. I recently set one in winter and watched my backyard squirrel population grow by at least two individuals in the first couple of days, and after almost a week, there are twelve squirrels from the five that I used to see. If you are interested in getting a closer look at or catching a squirrel or chipmunk, set a small-sized live trap with some kind of nut or seed (squirrels typically prefer hickory nuts and pecans) as bait. Put it on or behind the trigger plate, and it may be good to smear a nut/peanut butter mixture on the trap's trigger plate to add the extra pressure of the eating squirrel's hands. Also, leave a trail of mediocre food in front of the trap to entice your quarry. It should take a few days, if you are lucky, to catch a squirrel (if you're lucky enough to even catch one) and caution should be taken when releasing a sharp-clawed, sharp-toothed angry squirrel.
(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

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