When I was out on the patio to catch some of the fine fall sunshine the other day, I was sworn at with a loud, vociferous, emphatic blast of squirrel language. The western red squirrel, which has been challenging me all summer, had in just a few cold days claimed the patio as his territory with firm determination and loud raucous cussing at everyone else who thought to claim it for a few hours.
This small squirrel is a cousin of the eastern red squirrel and like it in many ways. However, it is known by many names in the West where it is much browner, less red, than its eastern cousin. It is also known as the western red squirrel, pine squirrel, spruce squirrel, brown squirrel, and Douglas’s squirrel as well as the chickaree, which is the native American name for this pugnacious little animal.
There are more than two dozen sub-species or forms of this small squirrel in the United States. The local western red squirrel is our smallest tree squirrel. It is a grayish brown, 13 to 14 inches long, with five to six inches tail. The winter coat is grayer than the summer coat, and it has a distinct black stripe along its side to make the separation between the brown back and light under-parts although this line is more prominent in summer. They also have small-fringed ear tufts in winter, which are usually worn off in summer.
The western red squirrel is seldom found lower than 7,000 feet elevation. This due to the fact that spruce seeds are their main winter food supply. Therefore it is not surprising that they choose the spruce-fir forest of higher altitudes in which we live. This also accounts for the name spruce squirrel. They have only recently moved into my yard since the spruce trees I planted have matured enough to bear heavy crops of cones. Before this, they were in Bell Park in a steep ravine, which is close to Kinney’s Peak.
Ponderosa pine forests are not attractive to red squirrels because they are too open and sunny. I also have never seen one eating ponderosa pine seeds. I believe this may be because the cones are too heavy and large for them to husk or to store for winter. In my yard, they eat Colorado blue spruce and Douglas fir seeds. These are obtained by pulling each scale from the cone to reach the seed beneath it. The central core that is left is simply dropped to the ground.
All red squirrels have a large eye encircled with white that gives them a baby-like appearance. Most of the ones you see will be adults, but they will have a large eye and baby-like look. The pair that was in residence at my home had a litter of four young last spring and then apparently had a second litter of three that appeared in August.
Of the three, only two are left. Probably a fox or hawk reduced their numbers. They have never known any other life, so I presume they will spend the winter together. They do not hibernate but remain active all winter, only sleeping for short periods during storms and foul weather.
Due to this, they must store a great many spruce cones, which they do just by making huge piles of them in the vicinity of their favorite eating perch and their nest. They normally make a large, ball-shaped nest, which is placed on a branch near the trunk. These are lined with warm, fluffy plant material and sometimes shingled with pieces of bark. They are snug and warm, and the squirrels usually winter well. However, I one time found a western red squirrel nest in a bird house, which I was cleaning out in early spring. I had opened the box and raked the nest out before I realized there were nearly naked babies burrowed down in it. Mother squirrel came running and screaming invectives at me, so I quickly put the nest and babies back into the box and left. But that didn’t appease her.
I checked the next day and she had removed all the babies, carrying them by mouth to a second nest that was some distance away. Now I make sure I clean all nest boxes in the fall, and I look before I pull out an old nest. It is a good idea to clean out all nest boxes after nesting season ends for red squirrels often have mites or lice, which take a toll on their host that they might not survive the winter.
Red squirrels do a lot of damage when they find their way into summer cabins and chew up over-stuffed furniture and other things to make a warm nest. In the east where they have learned man’s ways, they chew into corn cribs and granaries for winter food.
I assume this pair of siblings will stay together over winter since they have never known any other life, however, when spring comes they will find mate and bear young of their own, in which case I may have too many of them in my yard and will be forced to remove some of them. In the meantime, they bring life and activity to my winter yard and are a constant source of amusement.