Every year, my wife’s extended family comes to our place for a holiday celebration. The younger members of the tribe quickly get bored with the indoor festivities and convince good ol’ Uncle Bill to head outside for some winter fun. For the past several years, however, the weather has been anything but winter-like. So, instead of snowball fights, we have hiked into the woods for a wildlife adventure.
Two years ago, after I promised we could see all kinds of animals, we returned from our adventure, and Sam – then 3 years old – was asked what he saw. He emphatically replied, “Nothin’!”
This past year, I was determined to produce. However, with youngsters ranging in age from 4 to 10, we sounded like a herd of elephants tromping through the woods, even though I stressed the importance of walking quietly “like Indians.” After 15 minutes, the questions started: “Where are the fox, turkey and deer, Uncle Bill?”
Just as I was about to offer a litany of excuses, I enthusiastically pointed to a gray squirrel that scurried across the trail in front of us. My buddy, Sam – then 4 – looked at me and rather incredulously said, “We got a million of those things in our yard,” as he stomped back to the house.
Sam’s exaggeration was only minor; gray squirrels are indeed abundant. Originally, the Finger Lakes Region was a hardwood forest wilderness, teeming with gray squirrels. Millions were believed to inhabit the forests of New York in the early 1800s. They were an absolute plague to pioneers who had established farmsteads in forest clearings – only to have the squirrels destroy their corn and other food crops. Because they were so destructive and abundant, bounties were established, and hunters easily harvested a hundred squirrels a day.
Sixty-six different members of the squirrel family live across the United States. Here in the Finger Lakes they include gray, red and flying squirrels; chipmunks; and – to the surprise of many people – woodchucks. Although they are fairly common, flying squirrels are seldom seen because they are nocturnal. By the way, they don’t fly but glide from tree to tree.
Gray squirrels are so named for obvious reasons. However, their color ranges from gray with yellow to reddish brown tints, to white (albino) and black. Distinct populations of black squirrels can be found across the region, which some mistake for a different species. They are simply gray squirrels with two recessive genes that give them their black coats.
Gray squirrels feed on insects, occasionally bird eggs, and a wide variety of seeds and tree buds. In the spring, I’ve watched them nip the buds of maple trees and then, in apparent pleasure, lap up the sweet sap. Their main source of food is acorns, walnuts and hickory nuts. In autumn, they carry fallen acorns and nuts quite a distance and then bury them in the ground for their winter food supply. Studies have determined that although they find and consume 75 percent of the cached nuts, those that are not found germinate in the spring, thus, regenerating the forest. Some have suggested that gray squirrels planted almost every hickory tree in America today. (However, even Sam might say that’s an exaggeration.)
Not only a problem to pioneer farmers, gray squirrels remain the subject of much complaint because they dominate bird feeders, dig up flower bulbs, and nip off the new growth of vegetables in backyard gardens.
Bushy tails, another name for gray squirrels, typically produce litters of three or four young in the spring and again late summer. During their winter courtship, I have observed several wild mating chases. On one occasion, nine males pursued a single female as she scrambled up and down and back and forth between two hickory trees. When she reached the end of a branch with no escape, she turned to face the onslaught, bared her teeth and screamed like a hawk. A dominant male joined the wild scramble and chased off the other would-be suitors.
Even when not engaged in mating chases, gray squirrels can be quite mouthy. When alarmed, their call is a rapid chucking sound, which is often accompanied by a fore and aft waving and fluttering of their tail. Once I watched a gray squirrel bark at a red fox that was walking through the forest, and later, it hysterically scolded a hawk that was perched in a nearby tree.
Fox prey on squirrels, but they must catch them on the ground, and that is quite a feat. Red tail hawks, sometimes called squirrel hawks, are more successful. Nesting red tails effectively hunt squirrels as a team. The squirrel I observed staring down and scolding the red tail was unaware of the hawk’s mate as it quietly flew in undetected, and captured the mouthy squirrel.
After observing that encounter between predator and prey, I remembered my father’s warning when I was young and mouthy, “If you keep jibber-jabbering all the time, you’re eventually going to get yourself into trouble.” So too, it must be with squirrels.
by Bill Banaszweski