Dear Angry Squirrel,
If your temper tantrums weren’t so photogenic
I wouldn’t linger so long with my camera at the foot of your tree
and you wouldn’t have reason to be so angry.
If you blindfolded me and dropped me somewhere on the property at random right now, I would still be able to tell you whether or not there was an oak tree nearby, based on the sounds alone.
The chattering and scolding of the red squirrels. The screams of the Blue Jays. The knock-knock-knock of the jays’ bills against the acorns’ tough outer husks. The loud smacks of discarded caps and husks falling to the forest floor. It’s harvest season, and the animals are taking full advantage of this year’s acorn mast, which I first wrote about a month ago.
Like squirrels, jays are voracious acorn eaters (you’ll have to excuse the fact that I couldn’t get a good photo of one with my point-and-shoot camera). Researchers have found that a single bird can harvest and cache about 110 nuts a day. What they can’t eat right away, they cache (store for later) by burying it in the soil and leaf litter, and since they don’t find and eat every acorn they cache they’re also planting the next generation of oak trees. For more information about the relationship between jays and oaks, check out the article Jays Plant Acorns from the University of California’s Oak Woodland Conservation Workgroup.
Last winter I wrote about squirrel caches and posted a photo of the scraps of pine cone left behind after a squirrel’s meal – I suspect that this winter those middens will contain acorn husks as well!
Next week I will be leading a backpacking trip to the Porcupine Mountains for my students, so (obviously) I won’t be on the internet at all. I have three fabulous guest posts scheduled for you, but I won’t be replying to comments etc. until I get back, at which point I’ll hopefully have lots of new photos and stories to share.
The following exchange happened on Twitter this morning:
I love words, and “subnivean” ranks up there ranks up there among my favorite winter-related vocabulary, despite the fact that as I type this my computer is giving it a squiggly red underline to insist that it isn’t a real word. (You’re wrong, computer. It is.) It simply means “under the snow,” in the same way that subterranean means “under the earth.” The reason it’s significant to winter ecology is that many small mammals excavate subnivean tunnels to move about more easily, hide from predators, insulate themselves, etc. I posted some photos of subnivean tunnels created by mice or voles last fall, although I didn’t use the word at the time.
I tried to take video of the squirrel that was entertaining me so much this morning, but it wouldn’t cooperate, so all I have to offer is a photo of some of the tunnel entrances themselves. I suspect that if I excavated one of these tunnels I’d find it full of sunflower seeds from the nearby feeders.
The mouse is a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice may build subways from stack to stack: supply, demand, and transport all neatly organized. To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear.
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
Looking for signs of life in the January woods is a bit like being a detective searching for clues. One thing I find myself constantly noticing is all the little sheltered snow-free spots that look like they’d be perfect places for small animals to hunker down.
The hollow under this log actually went back further than I could see.
And in this case, something – probably a red squirrel? – agreed with me about its shelter potential. There were tracks leading through the snow straight to the log.
I am out west for my holiday break now, but this post was written and scheduled on Monday.
By now most of the animals I enjoyed observing in September and October are dead, dormant, or gone south. When I do run into signs that a creature has been out and about, it’s always worth stopping to take a look.
Running vertically from the bottom of this photo to the woodpile at the top is a well-trod squirrel highway, crossed at right-angles by human boot prints. When I looked more closely I found the remains of a meal of pine seeds on top of one of the logs.
I kept walking and spent a while exploring the edge of one of the lakes. On my way back, however, I was lost in thought when a sudden movement nearby startled me out of my reverie – the squirrels had returned to the scene of the crime. The American Red Squirrel, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus, is a much more frenetic and noisy animal than its fatter, lazier gray cousin. One of them immediately started scolding me from the safety of a tree, but when I sat on the ground and waited it eventually decided to continue about its business, albeit still shooting me suspicious looks. (I’m being very anthropomorphic here, but watch the video and you’ll see what I mean.)
In the video you can see the squirrel disappear under a pile of decaying logs and emerge with a cone. It did this several times while I watched, so I assume I stumbled upon it retrieving food from a cache. I was tempted to lift up one of the logs and see what all was in there, but I decided I didn’t want to disturb it, in case doing so would adversely affect the squirrel’s survival somehow – the animals that do remain active through the winter here need every scrap of calorie they can get.
Tomorrow is the winter solstice. Halfway out of the dark, my friends.