When we moved into our 100-year-old, Pennsylvania farmhouse back in 1971, red squirrels lived in the attic. They ran over the attic floor and between the walls at all hours of the day and night. Tired of being awakened by their rambunctious noises, I asked the local contractor, who was doing some work on our house, about keeping out the squirrels.
“They’ve always lived there,” he said.
Clearly, he had no intention of doing anything about them.
Two years later, my in-laws sold their home in New Jersey and moved here to live in our guesthouse during the warmer months. One morning I complained to my father-in-law about the squirrels.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll take care of them.”
I thought he planned to get a live trap for them. But one day, when I returned from shopping, two dead red squirrels were pinned to my clothesline by their tails. Pop was so proud he hadn’t lost his prowess as a small game hunter that I hadn’t the heart to object. I also couldn’t believe only two red squirrels had caused the commotion in the attic.
Having moved from Maine, where we had lived in the country for five years and hiked in our mixed conifer woods filled with scolding red squirrels, I had no idea that central Pennsylvania had marginal habitat for them. But over our 41 years here, after the two attic squirrels were eliminated, I had had only a couple other brief sightings of a red squirrel.
Then, last October 16, our caretaker wife, Paula Scott, and our son Dave’s English girlfriend, Rachel Rawlins, sat in a camouflage tent blind at the edge of a small patch of woods between our overgrown garden site, and the powerline right-of-way. Paula was showing Rachel how she hunted for deer during archery season.
They never did see any deer, but Rachel came back excited about the red squirrel they had watched.
“Red squirrel,” I asked. “Are you sure?”
They described the red squirrel perfectly. It was half the size of a gray squirrel and had a dark red head, back and tail, white underside, and white eye ring. Also known as a “chickaree,” “pine squirrel,” “fairy diddle,” “chatterbox,” “boomer,” “rusty squirrel,” “barking squirrel,” or “Bang’s red squirrel,” its scientific name is Tamiasciurus, meaning “steward,” hudsonicus, for Hudson Bay, the site where its type specimen was found.
“Pine squirrel” refers to its preferred habitat—boreal coniferous forest with an interlocking canopy that provides protection for tree nests as well as its preferred food of conifer seeds and fungi, which can be preserved in the cool, moist environment. “Rusty squirrel” and “Bang’s red squirrel” describes its color, but all the other names refer to its repertoire of calls, specifically the alarm call “chirp” when predators are near and the threat call “rattle” in defense of their territory. With the “rattle” they may use a screech call or growl, and when approaching a female that may growl at them, a male will emit a buzz call.
But the red squirrel the women watched had been silent. And those few I had seen over the years also had been quiet. That’s because, when there are only one or two of them in widely spaced territories, they have no need to defend their turf.
Needless to say, I was sorry not to have been in the blind and seen the red squirrel. Eight days later, though, on a lovely October morning, I walked down First Field and paused to watch a white-crowned sparrow sitting on a weed head near the small patch of “red squirrel” woods.
That’s when I noticed a movement near Paula’s blind. I remained still, and the red squirrel climbed to a low tree branch and sat there while I watched it for several minutes before it dashed down the tree trunk and disappeared.
My next and, as it turned out, my last sighting of the red squirrel was on a warm December 4. Walking past the “red squirrel” woods, I noticed something atop an uprooted tree mound. It was the red squirrel, sitting up, its little paws folded across its chest. Whether it was worried about me or the gray squirrel running from First Field into the woods, it remained still and silent. Finally, I continued on my walk.
It was 13-year-old Carl Engstrom, who came up to participate in our Christmas Bird Count on December 16, 2012, who was the last person to see the red squirrel. He looked out our bow window and glimpsed the squirrel down the back slope. I was making lunch in the kitchen, and by the time I ran to the window, it was gone.
Unfortunately, a muscle tear kept me inside for most of the winter and while I watched our feeder area that was mobbed with gray squirrels from far and near because of a mast failure, I never saw the red squirrel there, although Carl’s mother, Dr. Carolyn Mahan, a squirrel expert at Penn State/Altoona, says that red squirrels rarely use bird feeders. They also eat such a wide variety of food that she doubts that it starved. In fact, she thinks it may have been attracted by black walnut trees at the edge of the grove, which had produced nuts.
Red squirrels are opportunistic creatures, and even though they may prefer the food in boreal coniferous forests, they will eat acorns, beechnuts, hickory nuts, hemlock cones, tulip and sycamore seeds, buds of maple and elm trees, sumac fruits, fungi, insects, and an occasional nestling or clutch of birds’ eggs, all of which we have somewhere on our mountain except for the sycamores.
They also “tap” sugar maple trees in late winter for their sap by biting into the xylem of the trees and coming back to those taps after the sap has dried, when the sap has gone from two percent sugar to 55 percent, and licking the maple sugar.
They store whatever food they collect in late summer and autumn in middens or caches that may be in a hollow tree or burrow. Occasionally, they scatter hoard and sometimes they bury food in wet places where it may stay fresh for several years. Fungi are either dried in trees or in middens along with nuts, hawthorn and sumac fruits.
I never did find a midden in the couple hollow trees on the ground, although in a study Mahan and Richard Yahner did nearby back in the early 1990s, they found that red squirrels used burrows on nine occasions. They hypothesized that if the area had a high percentage of herbaceous vegetation which concealed burrow systems, those systems could serve as places of refuge or nesting sites for red squirrels in marginal habitat where the interlocking canopy of trees for safe leaf nesting doesn’t exist. Certainly, I saw no sign of leaf nests in the “red squirrel” woods.
Whether it starved or was killed by a predator, we’ll never know. But most of the long list of predators that eat red squirrels—fishers, bobcats, large hawks and owls, coyotes, crows, weasels, martens, gray and red foxes—live on our mountain.
Where it came from is another mystery. But Mahan suggests it could have dispersed a distance from its birthplace using our wide corridor of mountaintop forest.
Red squirrels come into heat for one day in late winter and again, in early summer. Only then does the female allow males to enter her territory, which she defends year round, to mate. She may mate with as many as four to 16 males in that day after mating chases. She then settles into one of several nests, in her half to three-acre territory. Made of grasses, mosses, shredded bark and leaves, she may construct it in a deserted woodpecker hole or natural tree cavity in hickories or oaks, a rock pile, hollow fallen tree, or burrow.
After 35 days, she bears three to seven pink and hairless young. Their ears open at 18 days and their eyes at 21-35 days. In 40 days their pelages are fully developed. When they are six to eight weeks old, she weans them.
As they grow, the litter mates chase and mock fight. A few weeks after weaning they are on their own and in search of their own territory. Even when, in 15 percent of litters, a mother gives up a portion or all of her territory to her young, a process known as “bequeathal,” only 22 percent of all young red squirrels survive to breed at one year of age.
I assume our red squirrel had been born in August and had recently dispersed. Or perhaps, it was an April birth. In any case, it did not survive to start a family of its own. After so many years without red squirrels, I was pleased to see one nearby. But not, thankfully, in our attic!
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