Squirrels

Red squirrels are more territorial and aggressive than grey squirrels.

I do not think that there is any animal more charismatic than the squirrel. Love them or hate them, they have spunk. Sometimes, they have too much spunk.

Once, while waiting to load a bus in some western state, I observed a ground squirrel get run over by a vehicle. Some nincompoop had thrown an apple core from their car window, and the little guy was scavenging.

Suddenly, a second squirrel appeared at the road’s edge. He grabbed the paws of first squirrel and pulled him off the road and into the weeds.

I thought, “It’s a squirrel eat squirrel kind of world out there.”

A boy standing next to me witnessed the whole grim spectacle, yet he offered a much more optimistic point of view. He proclaimed, “That little squirrel pulled his friend to safety. He saved his friend!”

Oh, the innocence of youth.

The squirrel-centered question of the week comes in from a concerned reader in Blowing Rock who must have gotten all previous advice from naturalist comedians:

Up until the last few years, we have never seen red squirrels at our home. Now, we have more than one.

Someone recently told me that they are the result of gray squirrels and chipmunks breeding. Another told me that they are so territorial that they invade the nests of gray squirrels and castrate the male babies with their teeth.

Now, I don’t buy either tale, but what can you tell me about them? We love those feisty little guys! –C.C.

Well, I have heard some good tales in my life, but those two take the cake! You have very imaginative friends.

Differing from other tree squirrels by its smaller size, the American red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) prefers to live in our higher elevation coniferous forests.

Squirrels and chipmunks belong to the Rodent order and Sciuridae family.

Therefore, the Eastern Grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) and eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) are related to our red squirrels, but not close enough to breed successfully (though it is possible).

As for the territoriality of the red squirrels, your friends are closer to target (though still very far off).

Red squirrels do not hibernate. In order to survive winter, they gather food into large caches and defend their cache and their territory with all their furry might. Their vociferous outbursts have given way to their nicknames: chickaree and boomer.

A high pine nut yield in 2015 probably led to less red squirrel mortality and higher squirrel pup recruitment — the percentage of pups that survive to adulthood. Hence, the invasion into your yard.

Due to their territoriality, red squirrels are more aggressive than their communal grey squirrel cousins. When confronted with a grey squirrel the red squirrel will erupt in a heated argument and, sometimes, viscous fighting.

Now that you have red squirrels in your vicinity, you should spend some time outside observing them. Watch how they interact with their feathered and furred neighbors, and try to find where they are caching their food. You will be greeted with a staccato “chik, chik, chik,” but it will be worth the adventure!

If you have a question concerning flora and fauna, please email dearnaturalist@gmail.com. All of your questions will be answered. One or two will be featured next week. See you on the trails!

Amy Renfranz is the new Education Specialist at Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation (GMSF). She is a Certified Naturalist through the Yellowstone Institute and a Certified Environmental Educator in the state of North Carolina. Her comments are made independently and do not reflect the views of GMSF.

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