Wildlife

Chickarees, our local Pine Squirrels

Two weeks past, Sandi Elster asked if I knew anything about our red squirrels. While I’ve spent some time with Pine Squirrels in other places, I’ve not had a chance to observe for an extended period of time here yet – the presence of dogs interferes with that. However, I have met them once or twice since moving to Trego, despite our little predator’s best efforts.

In this neck of the woods, an American Red Squirrel is often called a “Chickaree” or a “Chicory”. My personal preference is for “Chickaree”, as the other spelling can also refer to a plant related to the dandelion – it makes a decent tea, and a rather sad coffee substitute, but isn’t the squirrel we seek.

The pine squirrel most common on our place is the American Red Squirrel, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus. These are considerably smaller than the Fox Squirrels I grew up calling “red squirrels” in South Dakota. Additionally, the American Red Squirrel tends to prefer far more forested areas. Fox and Gray Squirrels (both in genus Sciurus) tend to do well for themselves in town, but Tamiasciurus pine squirrels seem to do better on the outskirts or away from towns.

A summer picture of an American Red Squirrel from several years ago -it’s not often they pose so well.

Pine Squirrels defend territories throughout the winter months, and when sufficiently established, they leave behind territory to their children, and children’s children.

These territories focus on things called “middens“. These are basically large piles where squirrels have been processing pine nuts for generations. If a female is well-off enough, she may defend several middens, and may give control of some of them to her offspring, to help them get through the winter. If an American Red Squirrel doesn’t have a midden of its own by its first winter, it is unlikely to survive, so inheritances can be very important.

Though it may come as a surprise to some, all squirrels seem to enjoy eating meat on occasion. They often visit carrion, both to feed on the flesh, as well as to gnaw on the bone (a habit more common in females – having kids makes calcium intake awfully important). While occasional and opportunistic, many squirrels hunt as well. As is the case in our voles, these small mammals agree that there are few better ways of convincing your annoying neighbors to move on than by devouring their little ones.

John Muir had great regard for the Pine Squirrel, particularly the Douglas Squirrel, the western relative of our American Red Squirrel.

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