The red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), also known as the “chickaree” or “pine squirrel,” is the smallest tree squirrel in the Capital Region. With a body length of 7 to 8 inches and a tail 4 to 6 inches in length, it is noticeably smaller than its cousin the gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), which has a body length of 8 to 10 inches and tail of 8 to 10 inches.
But red squirrels make up for this diminutive stature with gargantuan attitudes. These little beasts can reign supreme over any bird feeder they decide to lay claim to. I have seen large gray squirrels, which can weigh up to 25 ounces, flee in terror from an enraged red squirrel, which may weigh only 5 to 8 ounces.
Red squirrels take umbrage with anyone who dares to wander into their domain. You will become aware that you have committed such an offense when a red squirrel positions itself on a branch about 10 feet off the ground and then unleashes a barrage of squeaks, whistles and chatters while madly waving its little tail about.
If you could understand what the squirrel was saying, I bet you would be utterly scandalized. If red squirrels were larger, they might be terrifying creatures, but this sort of gumption stored in such small packages makes them utterly adorable.
Named for their beautiful winter coats, red squirrels may be better described as brown squirrels in summer when the rich orange-red fur on their backs and tails will fade to more closely match the brown fur of their flanks. An orange hue will remain in summer, but during winter the coats of red squirrels are simply magnificent when illuminated by direct sunlight.
Two reasons to chase
During the breeding season, which starts in January, these normally excitable little creatures get even more wound up. Red squirrels fight among themselves rather savagely, and the fighting is most severe when males are competing for the attentions of females. When two males square off, there is often a lightning-fast chase around a tree until one male tackles another and starts biting.
When a male attempts to woo a female, however, the chasing takes on a far more lazy and seductive quality. I have watched these friendly games of tag last for 20 minutes or more and I have always noticed that both the males and females look as though they are having quite a good time. The next time you see a chase, try to decide if its motivation is one of aggression or amore.
There is no role for male red squirrels in the postmating world. In fact, adult males represent a serious hazard to any young squirrel, so the females must seek out nest sites and raise their families on their own.
The most attractive location for a nursery is inside a hollow tree, where the female can build a warm nest, often using the shredded bark of grapevines. A female red squirrel will defend her nest with every fiber of her being. Woe to any male foolish enough to attempt to call upon a former conquest!
Red squirrels are typically born in late March or April after a 48-day gestation period. Right now, the woods are full of expectant mothers, and in a couple of weeks the trees in the forests around us will be filled with hidden newborns.
They are born naked, blind and helpless, but after just one month their eyes will open and they will start to learn how to be the bold, brassy little rascals of our local woods.
Bill Danielson is a professional nature photographer and author living in Altamont. Contact him at www.speakingofnature.com.