A Labor of Leaves

Squirrels are industrious little creatures.

They’re famous for indefatigable filching at bird feeders. For hoarding and hiding nuts. And for building dreys, those treetop nests made of seemingly random clumps of leaves. But there’s nothing accidental about drey fabrication. The nest has multiple layers for warmth and strength. Dreys are carefully woven shelters that withstand severe winds, hail, and driving rain. Here’s a cross-section view one blogger posted.

I’ve never witnessed a drey construction project. Don’t I wish I could film that bit of creature behavior! But this spring, I watched a squirrel use leaves to great advantage in a tree cavity.

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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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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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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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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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Squatter’s Rights

A dozen doors and a skylight.

That’s the approximate count of cavity entrances in the old, broken snag outside my window. I love that ugly remnant of a tree! It brings a daily wildlife show to my front-row seat.

The tree has been occupied by Pileated Woodpeckers, nesting squirrels, Wood Ducks, European Starlings, and Red-Bellied Woodpeckers—several of them simultaneously.

This nesting season, I watched Juliet Squirrel quiver from her balcony in this tree, as she was courted by a Romeo. Soon after, I watched Juliet pad the cavity with leaves, a sure sign she’s expecting. I was looking forward to watching Juliet’s kits take tentative (and comical) first steps outside the cavity.

And then another creature exercised squatter’s rights.

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Shakespeare for Squirrels

Two Romeos, one Juliet.

See how she leans her cheek upon her hand.
O, that I were a glove upon that hand
That I might touch that cheek!

These are lines from the Bard’s most famous play, of course. The story came to mind last week when I noticed two squirrels engaged in a chase. As the critters careened through the trees, with their signature acrobatic leaps and hairpin turns, I couldn’t say who was pursuing whom. I thought initially—it being spring, after all—that I was watching a Romeo in pursuit of his Juliet.

But then I spied the true object of these squirrels’ desire.

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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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Over the Edge

There’s something remarkable in this photo.

At first, I didn’t see it. I was reviewing old photos and videos, and all I noticed here was the fungus growing inside the tree. Despite losing its top, this tree has provided nesting space for woodpeckers, wood ducks, and squirrels. But the fungus tells me our wildlife magnet is now so rotted, its shelter days may be winding down. So, the fungus inside the trunk is interesting, but that’s not what fascinates me about the photo.

Look carefully at the squirrel. He’s climbing head-first down the tree trunk. But what about the toes we see grasping the edge? Is that foot coming, or is it going?

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