Stop, Thief!

I’m witnessing larceny… in the treetops.

It’s happening right now, just outside my window. We have many snags—dead and declining trees—that are riddled with cavities. Squirrels bunk inside for winter warmth, and in spring, they fill their dens with kits.

Since mid-February, I’ve watched three squirrels carry leaves into cavities, presumably for insulation. Recently, they’ve stepped up the pace, which may mean they’ve had their litters. Each squirrel makes five or six daily leaf runs—or at least, those are the ones I notice.

And then, there’s the thief.
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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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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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A Thirst for Snow

It looked like a sno-cone.

Yesterday, I watched a squirrel make and eat miniature snowballs. As he ate, that frosty childhood treat came to mind.  Then I realized my neighborhood creatures are experiencing a drought. Our snowy Michigan landscape looks eerily beautiful this week, but Arctic temperatures have frozen all the wildlife water sources.

This fellow ate his sno-cone with seeming gusto, and I wondered: How do tree squirrels cope with bitter-cold weather?

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Scritch Scratch Squirrel

Last spring, a mama squirrel was itchin’ to relocate her babies.

She moved them from one den to another—same tree, different apartment. That tree has four cavities whose entry holes are visible from the house, topped by a skylight. Mama carried each kid out of a lower cavity, up the trunk, and into a higher hole. Why? The most likely answer, my online search revealed, was to escape a flea-infested nest.

I wondered if the move really helped. The entire residential complex seemed likely to house fleas, as it was common to see birds and squirrels enter one hole and exit another. I suspected the fleas roamed freely through tunnels connecting the cavities.

I’ll never know if mama’s work was rewarded by a bite-free zone for her kids. I hope so! Nobody wants to think of babies enduring the misery of bug bites. But if she returns to that upper apartment, I suspect she’ll mark it off-limits for future nesting.

Two squirrels–not necessarily including the mama in question–recently lined the upper cavity with leaves. They’re sheltering inside. The other day, one of them climbed out and gave me ample evidence that a flea-festation has reached the upper abode.

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Mama Sings the Squirrel Blues

Say quaaaaaaaa

Use your saddest raspy voice, and you’ll sound like a squirrel singing the blues.

Quaaa is how biologists describe the squirrel screech that catches my ear from time to time. If you live anywhere near a tree, you’ve probably heard it, too, along with the critters’ kuks and moans, the other documented squirrel sounds.

The scientists call the quaaa an alarm sound, but after seeing one mama perform an extended quaaa soliloquy, I think they’re misinterpreting the lady’s meaning.
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Serenity-Seeking Squirrels

What’s your favorite squirrel nickname?

Tree Rat? Seed snitch? Bane of the backyard birder?

Squirrels get a really bad rap. Not at my house, though. I harbor no ill will toward the bushy tails—no resentment for wasted seed, no anger at stolen suet. That’s because we do not feed the birds, who seem to dine just fine on our woods’ native food. Not to mention that when I film, I prefer catching the creatures in trees instead of hanging on feeders. So, aside from the racket our dog Remy makes when he spots a squirrel in a scurry, what’s not to love? Indeed, I’m grateful to the squirrels. They’re entertaining, and they eat tons of acorns. If you happen to have a lawn surrounded by oaks, you know why I think it’s wonderful when acorns do not have a chance to become seedlings.

But back to that bad rap. Apparently, it gives the little cuties a complex. Which could explain why I see them practicing tai chi in the trees.
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Not Ready to Leave the Nest

Mama squirrel says: It’s really time to go.

What we’ve long called our ‘squirrel tree’ gave us a special treat this spring. A mama squirrel nested in a corner of a craggy snag that’s easy to see from the house. Most of her kit-rearing took place out of view, deeper in the tree. But when it was time for Mama to nudge the kids from the nest, we got a front-row seat to her parenting.

I’m glad I had the video cam ready. You will really want to see Mama’s get-them-out-of-the-house technique.

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