More than a Mustache

Whiskers!

We’ve all seen them on our pets’ faces and on squirrels and other rodents, rabbits, beavers, walruses, and some other mammals. Until recently, I didn’t give whiskers much thought. Then I learned they’re not just facial hair… and they’re not always on faces.

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Fumble and Search

Score!

The young woodpecker made a proud show of his loot.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are well equipped to forage. Their bills are built to chisel, hammer, and drill. They have long, sticky tongues with barbed tips—perfect for reaching into crevices and pulling out prey.

These birds are omnivores, happy to eat seeds, nuts, fruit, and meat. They’re both aggressive and tenacious. A few months ago, I filmed a Red-bellied Woodpecker pounding the life out of a bat before flying it away for consumption. At feeders, these woodpeckers will swipe peanuts from under squirrels’ noses. And when they find a hard-shelled seed or nut, they know exactly what to do: Wedge it into a tree crevice and hammer. They’ll catch the pieces with a cupped wing or trap them in belly and breast feathers pressed into the tree.

So, when the immature woodpecker leaned into a crevice with a nut in his bill, I expected to see a speedy pound-and-swallow maneuver.

Instead, I saw a fumble.

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Food for Courage

An all-caterpillar diet does not have to be boring.

That’s what I concluded as I watched Baltimore Oriole parents feed their nestlings during my recent nest-watch. They brought wiggly larvae in all colors, sizes, shapes, and textures: green, white, black, skinny, plump, smooth, striped, bumpy, and hairy. Aside from the occasional dragonfly and moth, the nestlings’ diet seemed pretty predictable.

Until they were about four days old.

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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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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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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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A Bit of Bird-Watching Humility

What a racket!

It sounded like a squeaky-door orchestra playing in double-time staccato. I looked out the window, expecting to see a flock of agitated birds. But there were only two, and they seemed to be squabbling. One stood on our long-dead snag, the other on a nearby tree. They launched verbal tirades at each other, as though trading insults.

I did not recognize these birds.

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