Monday, February 16, 2009

Reds and Grays

The most visible wildlife in our yard are the squirrels. Although we spend time trying to baffle the squirrels so they can't reach the bird feeders, they are just as interesting to observe as the birds. The gray squirrels are clever, patient, calm, and they get along with their neighbors. It took one squirrel just a few hours to figure out the baffle on the feeder post. It ran up and down the tree several times, climbed out on thin branches, then back down to the base of the post. We think that it was measuring jumping distances. Sure enough, a short time later, it leaped from the tree to the feeder. By the next day several other gray squirrels had copied the feat.

Each day 3 or 4 gray squirrels visit the feeders, hanging out peacefully together. The gray gathers a sunflower seed in its paws and quietly opens and eats the seed. This is unlike the solitary red squirrel that darts in after attempting to scatter the grays, collects one seed, then scampers back to its hideout in the back woods. Red squirrels are feisty and like their territory all to themselves. Even the males and females don't like each other, except one or two days a year when they mate.Red squirrels cache or store large numbers of pine and hemlock cones in one place. They also have favorite eating spots, usually a tree stump or low branch. Over time, a large pile (known as a midden) of spent cones and scales accumulates below the dining area. In contrast, the gray squirrel stores one nut at a time (acorns being a favorite). In winter they go about digging up the solitary nuts, apparently remembering where they buried most of them. Those they miss will sprout and mature to produce their own crop of acorns.

Red squirrels often chatter and scold from their dining perch or a higher branch. Gray squirrels are not nearly so chatty, not being worried about warning intruders since they are not territorial like the red squirrel. Both of these squirrels build leaf nests (with some twigs) in trees. The gray squirrel builds its nests higher up in the tree and it is a sloppy builder, whereas the red squirrel builds a tight roundish ball of leaves.

That is the beauty of these common squirrels -- their tracks, nests, and dining spots are easily spotted in winter, and their antics are easy to see, even from inside my own cozy house.

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