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The Forest Chickaree by Don Meredith © 1985
(first published as "Red Squirrels" in the April/May 1985 Canadian Geographic)

Red Squirrel

My huskies seldom bark. When they do it is for a good reason. Now the big, black-and-white male was sitting on his haunches, barking at an aspen tree branch that hung down into the dog pen.

I soon saw what was causing the commotion. There on the branch just a few centimetres above the very "jaws of death" was a reddish-brown squirrel chattering defiance at my puzzled dog. The squirrel's bushy tail was curled over its back and head, and the tawny fur on the tail was flared making the animal look much bigger than fact.

The squirrel could have easily climbed up the branch and out of the pen, but instead chose to stay just out of reach and give a tongue-lashing to the brute below. Its angry, staccato "tchik, tchik, tchik" call was punctuated by jerks of the tail, and ended in a long trailing "tchrr".

As I entered the pen, the squirrel finally beat a retreat through the treetops, but not without letting all know that the confrontation was not to end here. My dog turned to his food bowl to sniff the contents—the focus of the conflict. I soothed his hurt pride while listening to the chattering phantom fade into the woods.

This aggressive, almost bullying behavior of the red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) has always fascinated me. Most wild mammals, whether they be large or small, are difficult to see in the wild. They prefer to be secretive, using their senses to avoid being seen or heard. Not so the red squirrel. It boldly advertises its presence, and challenges the right of intruders to be in its domain.

Nearly everyone is familiar with this denizen of the forest. The squirrel is easily identified in summer by its greyish-brown coat on the back and head that contrasts with the pure white on its throat and belly. In fall, the summer coat is shed and replaced by one of reddish-brown with greyish-white on the throat and belly. The squirrel is about 30 centimetres long from tip of nose to tip of tail, and weighs about 235 grams. Its tail makes up almost half its length, and is used for balance as the squirrel jumps from tree branch to tree branch in its arboreal habitat.

The red squirrel is found throughout Canada, preferring to live in coniferous forests yet willing to accept a hardwood habitat as well. It is variously called red squirrel, tree squirrel, pine squirrel, barking squirrel or chickaree. The latter two names refer to the squirrel's noisy chatter—usually the first thing to attract your attention.

The red squirrel is easily distinguished by color and size from the grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) which may also be black and with which it shares small portions of its range. But it can be confused with its close relative, the Douglas squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii), found in southwestern British Columbia, which is similar in size and color but has an orange or yellow throat and belly.

Hanging Squirrel

Red squirrels are opportunists in their feeding habits. While they eat mainly seeds and nuts, especially those of cones, they also eat a wide variety of other foods, such as mushrooms, flowers and fruits. And, they are not above sampling insects, birds' eggs and young birds in the nest when they find them.

Unlike some of its hibernating relatives, such as ground squirrels and chipmunks, the red squirrel is active throughout the year, relying in winter on a large cache of food it has collected during the summer. These caches can be spotted in the forest by the refuse pile, or midden, of cone scales and other debris that marks where the squirrel has husked the nuts before storing them in a nearby burrow. These caches are often used by generations of squirrels, and the middens can cover a square metre in area and be a metre or more deep.

Collecting food is an obsession with red squirrels, even when their caches contain more than enough food to ensure survival through the winter. I maintain a bird feeder, and each fall a red squirrel attempts to take over the feeder from the blue jays and chickadees which regularly visit.

At first, the squirrel tries to pack off the entire load of sunflower seeds and oats. Then it realizes this is unnecessary and proceeds to make the feeder itself a food cache. Mushrooms and berries are stuffed into the feeder, and the squirrel sits on the roof protecting it from the birds which insist on stealing "its" food. This soon turns into a comedy as the squirrel cannot watch all the birds all the time. When a bird attempts to fly in, the squirrel chases it away, bounding from tree trunk to branch. While it is gone, the other birds fly in and grab a quick bite before the squirrel returns to begin another chase.

After two or three days of this, the squirrel and birds come to a truce. The squirrel watches the birds feed from a distance, only occasionally giving chase when the frustration becomes too much.

One of the reasons for the red squirrel's aggressiveness is its unusual territorial system. Many other animals are territorial in behavior, each individual defending a certain portion of real estate from intrusions by its neighbors. The size of the territory is decided by the amount of food and space required to raise a family, and how successful the individual is in defending the space. The more aggressive the individual, the more territory it holds. Usually the male establishes the territory and invites the female to join him.

With red squirrels, however, males and females set up separate territories, and boundary disputes are equally vigorous between squirrels of the same or opposite sex.

Obviously, if this system was maintained throughout the year, there would soon be no more red squirrels. So, for a few days in the spring, territorial boundaries are relaxed. Each female is ready to mate for only one or two days in March or April. On the day when she will accept males, the boundaries disappear. All the males from the surrounding territories converge on hers and a cacophony of heated argument and vicious fighting ensues.

The female leads her suitors on a wild chase up and down tree trunks, from tree branch to tree branch and across the ground through brush piles and shrubs. The males fight among themselves for the right to lead the pack.

I once watched a female being pursued by four males. She stopped on top of a brush pile to look behind her, only to find that her escort had broken up into two fights. She waited until the fights were over and she was once again the center of attention before continuing the chase.

Chases are exhausting and the fights can cause injury. Eventually, one male establishes dominance over the others and leads the pack. The female finally stops and allows this male to mate with her. Even if the mating is successful, the pursuit continues. Often the leadership of the fatigued males changes several times, and more than one male may mate with the female.

Once her interest in males is over, the female turns on her suitors and chases them out of her territory. The old boundaries are re-established and she doggedly defends them. The males return to their territories and wait for the scent on the wind that tells them that another female is ready for courtship.

This territorial system of well defined boundaries is found in prime red squirrel habitat where the population has divided up large groves of cone-bearing trees. In habitat where the groves of evergreens are fewer, smaller, and sparsely distributed, individual squirrels require much larger areas in which to forage, and actively defend only areas around their middens and nests.

The Douglas squirrel has a territorial system similar to that of the red squirrel; the grey squirrel does not. It is more tolerant of its own kind, and often feeds in groups. Where red and grey squirrels coexist, red squirrels successfully exclude individual grey squirrels from their territories. However, a group of grey squirrels will often enter a red squirrel's territory to feed at a particularly choice site and frustrate the outnumbered owner.

Drey

Four to five red squirrel pups are born in May or early June in the cavity of a tree, or in a nest built on the branch of a tree. This latter nest is called a "drey" and is made of grasses, twigs and shredded bark woven into a ball with a single entrance. At birth each pup weighs about 7 grams and is blind and naked. They grow quickly and by the end of the first month are covered with a soft downy fur, and their eyes are open. They are weaned at eight weeks when they each weigh about 70 grams.

The young remain in their mother's territory and care until the fall, when she escorts them to the boundary of her territory and leaves them. From that point on, she treats them as she does other squirrels—interlopers to be repelled.

In early fall the territorial battles heat up as juveniles try to carve out territories among those held by the established adults. Some of the old guard are replaced by young upstarts, yet the mortality rate among juveniles is high simply because there is not enough territory to go round. It is a crucial time of year when each individual must ensure it has sufficient real estate to supply itself with food throughout the winter. Adult red squirrels live an average of about two to three years.

Although bold and pushy when it suits them, red squirrels can also make themselves scarce, particularly when enemies, such as the pine marten, lynx, coyote, fisher, weasel or birds of prey come looking for a squirrel dinner. If a ground predator, such as a coyote, is observed entering a red squirrel's domain, the squirrel will warn other squirrels with a "tchik, tchik, tchik" alarm call from the safety of a tree.

People have had a long relationship with red squirrels, hunting them for food and trapping them for their fur. In Alberta, the red squirrel is rated economically as third or fourth most important furbearer (behind beaver, muskrat and sometimes lynx—depending on the year) and is part of the mainstay of many a trapline.

But red squirrels can also be pests. They will enter cabins and houses to take food, tear up blankets and mattresses or, in some cases, steal insulation out of the roofs and walls to line their nests.

Nonetheless, the animal's fearlessness, agility and curiosity make it fascinating to watch. In our cities, many older neighborhoods with mature nut-bearing trees provide good red squirrel habitat. Just walk through these areas and you will soon be scolded for trespassing by the resident chickaree.


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Check-out Don's adventure novels:

Grizzly One
The Search
for Grizzly One
Dog Runner
Dog Runner