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Roy Lukes: Native Squirrels – the Tree Planters

The Red Squirrel is one of nature’s busy tree planters. Photo by Roy Lukes.

The Red Squirrel is one of nature’s busy tree planters. Photo by Roy Lukes.

Here it is early December and nature’s tree planters are still hard at work. Actually they don’t know they’re planting trees, but inadvertently they are. It’s the squirrels I speak of, particularly the Grays and Reds in our area. I can only wonder if Flying Squirrels are included in this busy crew of “arborists.”

As usual, native plants produced plenty of seeds, nuts and acorns this year. This enormous quantity of viable embryos, coupled with unfrozen ground as of today (Nov. 24, 2015) and what appears to be at least a normal population of squirrels, surely will lead to a prodigious quantity of seedlings in a few years. Maples, Oaks, Beeches, Wild Cherries and Serviceberries will appear by the millions. Naturally only a small number of them will mature.

If you are the type of person who likes to see a reason for the existence of every form of plant and animal, some specific function of each species in the natural world, then surely the Red and the Gray Squirrels were put on Earth to be tree planters.

Mast refers generally to the nuts, acorns and perhaps even seeds of forest trees accumulated on the ground. For many years this natural “store” has been used in some farming regions of the world for feeding especially swine. These animals, having the perfectly adapted snouts for the job, are left free to forage for the fallen food in the woods.

Red Squirrels harvest seeds from Spruce cones and leave big piles of the cleaned cones in a mound called a midden pile. Submitted.

Red Squirrels harvest seeds from Spruce cones and leave big piles of the cleaned cones in a mound called a midden pile. Photo by Roy Lukes.

Squirrels on the other hand work diligently at gathering mast before the snow flies in the North Country. Gray Squirrels tend to bury individual nuts or seeds while the Reds are more prone to develop caches often containing a bushel or more of food.

The Gray Squirrels and the acorn-bearing oaks are genuine partners in nature. They belong to one another. Their number one food, especially the better-tasting White Oak acorn, is highly relished by the Grays. Nuts and seeds of the Hickory, Beech, Maple, Pine, and even Spruce also rank high on their food preference list.

Reds prefer seeds of Spruces as well as Hickory and Beech nuts along with Serviceberry and Maple seeds and even Pine and Fir seeds if other favorites are scarce. Experience has proven that many people who offer sunflower seeds to birds end up feeding both the Red and Gray Squirrels as well. (Please don’t ask me how to prevent this from happening!)

Another word in the vocabulary of some wildlife biologists is “midden.” This can refer to a refuse heap, for example the pile of Spruce cone scales that results from a Red Squirrel eating the Spruce seeds from a favorite limb near a food cache day after day. I have seen middens in the Boreal Forest that were nearly a foot deep by two or three feet wide, deep enough for a squirrel to eventually tunnel into for snug winter protection from the elements.

An interesting incident occurred at our home in the woods one fall. Like so many wild animals being creatures of habit, a Red Squirrel established a butternut-collecting route that went from below the steep hill to the north of our house, across the upper deck in front of our kitchen windows, down the corner of the solar collector, and finally to its cache beneath the brush pile about 50 feet to the southwest of the house. We assume from observations that that Red Squirrel worked persistently at this job until every last nut was gathered. We hope it planted at least a few for new trees in future years! By the way, that Butternut Tree has been dead for several years.

Literature regarding the life histories of squirrels mentions occasional emigrations of Gray Squirrels during periods of food shortage. Invariably they occur in autumn and, according to the experts, rarely amount to an area more than three or four miles at the longest. Obviously the breeding success in specific woods is so great that some of the squirrels have no choice but to find other less-populated woods where food is more plentiful.

Charlotte and I observed something one early November that supposedly is more common than is realized, a second seasonal litter of Red Squirrels in our woods, perhaps one of several. March is the main breeding season followed by another less active one in July. The Red Squirrel gestation period being about 38 days allows plenty of time for body development before winter.

Several years ago I heard of an interesting study pertaining to Red Squirrel physiology, natural food and litter size. Findings of the research indicated that the chemistry of the Spruce tree buds during the winter prior to the following year of heavy cone production was such that it triggered larger than usual litters of Red Squirrels the following spring. Consequently the larger than normal Squirrel population was on hand to take care of, “to plant,” the greater than usual number of spruce seeds that following fall.

Nature with its checks and balances, predators and prey, and food demands and supplies, is really wonderful and exciting to observe and study. It appears to me that humans should be learning and profiting more from the glaring examples being set for us by the animals, squirrels included. Lesson number one: “Simplify and live in harmony with nature!”

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