For the Birds Radio Program: Red Squirrel
For the first time since Laura moved to Peabody Street, a Red Squirrel has been visiting her yard.
We moved into our house on Peabody Street in 1981, and for the first 22 years, never had red squirrels. Well, except for the summer of 1987, when I raised a baby that someone rescued up near Ely. That dear little guy wriggled his way into all of our hearts while he was safely indoors with us, but as he grew more independent and started spending more time outdoors, he got dispatched by the neighborhood Merlin, leaving our whole family heart-broken and without any red squirrels again.
Meanwhile, my mother-in-law in Port Wing has always had way more red squirrels than she wants. Red squirrels get into so much trouble in rural areas, chewing into houses, stealing insulation, even starting electrical fires by gnawing through wires, that I’ve always thought that this is a species that would have been extinct long ago if it weren’t so adorable. Of course, some people are more susceptible to adorable mischief-makers than others. My mother-in-law has gone to some trouble to keep her own red squirrel population down to a manageable level, but I’ve still seen as many as a dozen on her property, which doesn’t seem fair since she doesn’t want them and I do, and I’ve had nary a one.
Until this fall. My neighbors noticed one in their feeder in August, and the little guy found its way to my spruce trees, where it comes fairly regularly now. He’s much tinier than my abundant gray squirrels, but bigger than a chipmunk. Red squirrels seem to be right in the middle between squirrels and chipmunks in other ways, too, with a bushy tail like a squirrel and a chipmunk’s quick movements. And the red squirrel’s scientific name seems to authenticate this in-between state. The genus name for the squirrel is Sciurus, the genus of the chipmunk is Tamias, and that of the red squirrel is Tamiasciurus.
Red squirrels are more of a true forest animal than either chipmunks or gray squirrels, so aren’t nearly as common in town in any neighborhood. I’ve virtually never found them in a true hardwood forest, either—they seem to like having at least a few coniferous trees in the mix, though they eat plenty of acorns, beechnuts, and other mast. They also eat a lot of meat compared to other squirrels—most people are shocked to learn that one of the major nest predators, of both eggs and baby birds—is this adorable and innocent-looking little squirrel.
So I’m not sure if I really want to have a red squirrel come spring, though if it comes to that, I might be able to satisfy this one’s taste for meat with a few hardboiled eggs from my kitchen. Meanwhile, during the cold days of November, it’s sure nice to see him, his clean white tummy and bold rusty upper coat, dark, mischievous eyes and tail quivering with adventure. He eats a lot of sunflower seeds, but isn’t that what they’re there for?