Western red squirrels begin roaming forests in April

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Our Evergreen World

By Sylvia Brockner

March has been an interesting month with weather zig-zagging between record highs, record lows, exceptional spring-like weather along with exceptional drought with which came a serious forest fire near Conifer. All of this brought a great deal of uncertainty.
April has already greeted us with a rain and a snowstorm, and we can’t help but wonder what else it will bring before the month is up. April has a reputation of being unable to make up its mind as to whether she will spring or put on her parka and dive back into winter.
April brings great movements of birds, though it is not as large as the big push in May when thousands of birds move northward to their breeding grounds. Nearly all the waterfowl move northward in April once the ponds and reservoirs are free of ice and the hardier land birds begin to arrive such as the chipping sparrows, which reach my yard usually between April 15 and 17.
Sunday, April 1, while doing a bit of yard cleanup, I saw a male American robin, which arrived here on Christmas Eve. I have seen him nearly every day since then as he visited all his old favorite perches and locations that he used last year. Today he has a mate in tow, and they were both busy collecting nesting materials in the same area they nested in last year.
I wish they had chosen a different location for they have not raised a successful brood for several years. Their nests have been placed in a ponderosa pine on one of the flat branches where it is right out in the open to any airborne predators. They don’t seem to learn from former experiences as their nests have been vandalized every year, probably by crows or ravens for it the eggs weren’t eaten, the young were eaten as soon as they made enough movement to attract attention to the nest.
I can’t say for certain that it was a crow or raven that vandalized the nest every year for only once did I actually see a crow at the nest. The other years, it could have been done by anything. It most certainly could have been done by the western red squirrels that have become residents in my yard and think they own the patio.
When we first arrived here, red squirrels did not nest in the yard. There were some on Kinney’s Peak, which is a bit higher in elevation and the forest is mostly spruce and fir. They prefer this forest, which is denser and shadier. The native trees around the house are all ponderosa pine. However, some blue spruce and Douglas fir, which were planted for variety, are now old enough to be bearing cones. This may well have encouraged red squirrels to move in.
The western red squirrel is one of several subspecies and is closely related to the eastern red squirrel. However, it is not really red. They are brownish-gray with a white belly, browner in their summer coat and grayer in the winter. At all times, they have a black stripe between the brown back and their white belly. The chickaree is in the same genus, but it is restricted to the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. It has a yellowish or rusty belly, not white. Many people call our western red squirrel a chickaree, but they are not exactly the same. They are very closely related, and I guess you could say they were kissin’ cousins.
Our western red squirrel is also called pine squirrel and spruce squirrel because of its preference for the coniferous forests. They are most at home in the spruce-fir forests just below timberline. In all of the research I have done on them, every author says they eat spruce seeds. They may prefer them, but I have watched them feast on both ponderosa pine seeds and Douglas fir seeds as well as some spruce. They also eat vegetable matter and meat when they can get it. They make huge piles of cones that they eat all winter and when spring comes, they are ravenous for new green shoots.
After high-speed chases through the tree tops in February or March as part of their courtship, they usually have four young and can have up to seven, and sometimes have a second brood.
The young become self reliant at a very early age, which makes it possible for the second group of young to mature before winter. The western red squirrel has a babyish look, which is largely due to its small size and large eyes, ringed with white.
They have been an interesting addition to my yard. They are easy to watch, and they become quite accustomed to you and show very little fear of people. They provide a great deal of amusement and their explosive anger and scolding are a warning to all when there is danger around. Despite the damage they do, I enjoy having them around.