When a Squirrel Needs a Snack

What do squirrels eat? Plenty.

Squirrels like nuts, of course. In our corner of the woods, that means mostly acorns. They love seeds, flowers, bark, and mushrooms—the kinds that cling to trees whose insides are rotting with fungus. On the darker side, they’re known to raid birds’ nests—usually for the eggs, and sometimes they’ll take a nestling. All these squirrel snacks make perfect sense, even the bark. That toothsome treat provides starches, sugar, vitamins, and minerals.

This week, I noticed two additional foods in the squirrels’ diet. One makes me want to cheer, and the other has me scratching my head.

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Fluffy Feathers and Frigid Feet

You’ve probably seen birds fluff their feathers in winter.

The fluffy feathers form little puff pockets of air warmed by the birds’ bodies. But… have you ever seen a bird with feathered feet?

In the past few weeks, I’ve watched geese stand immobile for thirty minutes or more on ice and in shallow, frigid water. They seem unconcerned about freezing their feet. Turkey vultures poop on their feet to cool them off in summer. Is it possible, I wondered, that the geese are dropping little toe warmers, and I never noticed?

I reviewed hours of video featuring geese on ice. Nope. Nary a plop.

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Scratch that Itch!

Mites and lice and fleas: Oh my!

Have you ever watched a scratching squirrel? Those little paws move incredibly fast, and I swear, their under-the-armpit maneuvers mimic taking a shower. I wrote a blog post about itchy squirrels a year ago, surmising that their den was infested with fleas. This past week, quite a few creatures’ itchy behavior caught my eye: the squirrels, a juvenile bald eagle, adult and juvenile swans, and two kinds of ducks—goldeneyes and mergansers.

So, what’s with all the picking, poking, biting, and scratching?

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Snag Face

A squirrel perched on a patch of snow.

Why, I wondered, had he selected this icy spot? There was plenty of dry seating nearby. The furry fellow sat perfectly still, his face disclosing no sign of discomfort. I zoomed in to see if he was shivering. That’s one way that squirrels stay warm.

Studying the squirrel through the lens, I could count his whiskers. But seeing no sign of a shiver, I stepped back from the camera.

That’s when I saw the second face.

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An Icy Eagle Encounter

The Bald Eagles were brawling on the ice.

At least, that’s what I thought I saw. I had been watching two juveniles for about twenty minutes.  Motionless in the frigid wind howling over Lake Allegan’s ice, the eagles appeared to be scanning for fish.

That was unusual, however. Our eagles typically conduct surveillance from high in the nearby trees. An island—aptly named Eagle Island by Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources—provides a broad view of the surrounding water. But these birds stood next to a narrow gap in the ice. Their horizontal line of sight would allow only a limited view of open water flowing in the lake’s main channel.

Then, as I pondered, one of the eagles dive-bombed the other. Perhaps they were not fishing, after all. Were they having an avian tiff?

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The (Not So) Abominable Snow Squirrel

Squirrels get a bad rap.

Some people even think they’re abominable. Sure, the little critters tuck into garden tomatoes. They steal seeds from bird feeders. But even the most hardened, anti-squirrel gardeners and birdwatchers must admit: They’re cute. Adorable, even.

Especially in the snow.

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No Soap Needed

In a driving rain, a squirrel sat on my favorite snag.

Snags are dead and dying trees, like the broken beech behind our home. Over the years, this tree has welcomed nesting woodpeckers, starlings, flycatchers, and wood ducks.  In winter, squirrels move in. They leave their summer dreys—the leafy nests we see in the crooks of branches—for warmer quarters.

On that wet, cold morning, I wondered: Why wasn’t the squirrel sheltering inside the tree? There are several cavities within the hollow snag. He wasn’t scampering for food. Instead, he sat placidly in the rain, perched on the very top of the tree.

Then—well, with a small dose of imagination—I realized what he was up to.

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Merganser Musings

Fall is a fine time to flirt.

If you’re a Hooded Merganser, that is. We think of spring as nesting season, but these little ducks form pairs as early as fall. I didn’t realize the ducks are such advance planners, so when I noticed their lively antics on Lake Allegan below our home, I assumed the birds were just reacting to the November cold.

Then I noticed some familiar behavior.

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Knock, Knock…

A woodpecker was foraging on my tree.

I wondered if she knew who was drumming nearby.

Woodpeckers drum for several reasons. Pairs signal each other during courtship, or when approaching to take a shift in the nest. But it was late September, not April. This was no time to begin a brood in Michigan.

Thrum-m-m-m-m. Another drumroll.

The lady peered around the curve of the tree. She seemed to be searching.

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Bing! Bang! Clang!

Bing! 

Our screen house took a direct hit. Bang! In a long bounce, the acorn slammed the deck below.  Clang! It ricocheted to a metal table. Seconds later, a repeat performance.

This percussion suite continued for an hour until the musicians—squirrels nibbling in the oaks above—finished their early evening harvest. Acorns littered the deck, tables, and chairs.

Along with the mess came a mystery.

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