Western red squirrel antics are a comical sight to behold

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Our Natural World

By Sylvia Brockner

If you have a resident western red squirrel in your yard, you are in for daily episodes of enjoyment and laughter.
I have lived in this house for a little over 48 years, and when we arrived in April of 1965, a pair of golden-mantled ground squirrels and a pair of gray-and-white tassel-eared squirrels thought they owned our patio.

The arrival of fox squirrels via the Bear Creek valley soon sent the tassel-eared squirrels to more remote areas, and about eight years ago, a pair of chipmunks gave the golden-mantled ground squirrels a run for their money and took over. About the same time, a pair of western red squirrels came down from Kinney’s Peak, chased out the fox squirrels, and took over the feeders and a nest box.
The western red squirrel, pine squirrel, spruce or fir squirrel, Douglas squirrel or chickaree, by whichever name you know it, is the smallest of the tree squirrels. They are especially known for their ferocious temper. They chase all other squirrels out of their home territory by giving them a vociferous tongue lashing from the safety of a limb high above the intruder’s head. Since they can’t scare me off, they have no great fondness for me and start a barrage of swearing at me as soon as they see me in the yard. I’m not used to be spoken to in such language, but this little mite does it so effectively that I must admit that I just laugh at it.
Besides all of his chatter, western red squirrels seem to find more ways to get themselves into trouble than most animals do. They can be very detrimental if they get into a house or summer cabin or attic. I remember their getting into our playhouse one winter, and by spring, all the doll clothes were chewed into a nice soft bed for their babies.
They do not hibernate, but stay active all winter. Therefore, they need to have a large supply of pinecones, which they collect in late summer and fall, storing them in piles near their nest. Only during severe storms do they stay in and sleep for a few days.
Red squirrels store far more cones than they need. They harvest the cones as soon as the seeds are mature but before cone scales have begun to open. This guarantees that the seeds are mature and are not infected with worms or other things that might make them useless.
The squirrels seem to somehow know which cones are the best. Because of this, foresters have taken a few of the cones from the squirrel caches for their seeds to start seedlings every year, but the squirrels’ supply is so great that the few are never missed.
I watched a red squirrel that had found an especially large ponderosa pinecone, which it was trying to carry back to its cache. The squirrel was coming head first down a big ponderosa with the cone clutched in its mouth and forefeet. It was trying desperately not to drop the cone as it maneuvered down the tree trunk, using only its hind feet. It looked like the large cone was dragging the squirrel down the tree.
I watched as it struggled with the cone. When it finally reached my split-rail fence, it started to take the cone along the horizontal rail toward its cache. This might have been easier, but all of a sudden, the cone rolled enough to slip off the rail and nearly took out the squirrel with it. Now, the squirrel was hanging by his hind feet with the cone still held in its mouth and forefeet. Its momentum was enough to set it swinging, and like a pendulum, it swung back and forth, still clutching its cone.
Finally by stretching as much as possible, he made contact with the ground and released his hind feet. He then dragged the cone a goodly distance along the ground to his storage area. During all of this, he was still chattering, telling the whole world what he thought about the difficulty of storing cones for winter.
As I said, they are fun to watch.