While Red Squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) can be found in purely deciduous woods, they prefer coniferous forests – or at least a hardwood forest with some conifers because their favorite food is seeds extracted from pine cones. In fact, they have a curious habit of going to the same eating perch repeatedly to rip scale after scale from cones to get at the seeds. If you ever see a pile of pinecone scales in the woods, you can bet Red Squirrels have been eating there. Poke around in the pile and you will also find the “cores” of pinecones – stripped bare of all scales. It reminds me of corn cobs after a summer picnic!
Red Squirrels also eats buds, seeds, fruits, and mushrooms. They seem to have a sweet tooth, as they will bite through the bark of a maple tree in spring allowing the sap to run. As it trickles down the tree, water evaporates from the sap leaving a sticky, sweet treat, which Red comes back for in a few days. In addition to these plant sources, Red Squirrels also eat insects, birds, mice, voles, and young rabbits.
If you enter Red Squirrel territory, you are apt to be scolded with a loud continuous chick-chick-chick. (I remember getting a serious scolding once while setting up my tent near an Eastern Hemlock tree… Eventually he decided to allow my presence, but it was clear he didn’t like it!)
Red Squirrels prefer to nest in a tree cavity, but if none can be found, they will weave a basketball-sized nest in the branches of trees from leaves and twigs. Occasionally, they will nest on or underground, especially in winter.
Two cool vocabulary words related to Red Squirrels:
- Midden – the pile of “trash” (pinecone scales and cores) left behind from eating pinecone seeds.
- Cache – the pile of stored food Red Squirrels stash just before winter – sometimes at the base of a tree, sometimes underground.