THROUGH THE WOODS: The American red squirrel

American red squirrel. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

IF YOU SAY THE WORD SQUIRREL, most of us visualize the scampering gray squirrel of parks and woodlands. Both the gray and the red have generally the same body type, with the American red squirrel about half the length and a weight of only 8 ounces. Both are classified as tree squirrels that nest off the ground and in the trees.

In appearance, our red squirrel is distinct with a rusty reddish body and tail, and a white-to-cream stomach separated from the body color by a short black line. The large dark eyes are circled with white, and hair color can vary with the season, some darker than others. American red squirrels can be found here in New York and north throughout Canada, the Rockies, and southern Alaska.

They are cute little guys unless they gnaw through your siding or bird feeders with their strong, sharp front teeth. These grow continuously and they must chew and gnaw to keep them at a comfortable length. This is usually accomplished by dismembering spruce cones to extract the rich seeds. The dropped pieces of cones can pile up to form middens. They also like nuts, seeds, grains, flowers, berries, tree buds, and occasionally eggs, young birds and animals. Diet varies depending on the season, and they store food in several tree holes in case one is robbed or destroyed. A female establishes and defends a territory that produces enough food for herself and a family and selects several tree holes for nests.

A first mating occurs between one to two years of age and takes place for one day only from March to May and possibly again in August through September. In the female’s one day of estrus, the swiftest males will catch her, and she may mate with a few to sixteen different males. Some may be close relatives with no known problems for these offspring. Gestation is about 34 days and the 1-8 kittens are born in her nest, called a drey. The mother red squirrel may move them between several nests and weans them at age 7-8 weeks. They are then kicked out of the drey to find their own separate territories.

Only about 22% of the kittens survive to breed. They are food for many predators such as raccoons, foxes, weasels, bobcats, coyotes, minks, fishers, owls, hawks and martens. Even with this high mortality these squirrels have good numbers and are in no danger of extinction, with some living up to 7 years.

They are aggressive and pugnacious, jumping and zipping up and down trees so fast they are a blur of red. And they loudly chatter, squeal and growl to tell you that you are in their territory. I have two that constantly fight over seed spilled from my squirrel-proof feeders on the porch. My cat stands on his hind legs with front paws spread against the window glass and chatters back at them in total frustration. The red squirrels know he can’t get to him and seem to be laughing. At least no one is harmed, and the cat gets lots of exercise running and beating up one of his toys instead of a squirrel. Everyone wins and I have great entertainment for dull winter days.

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