Nature Nut — Greg Munson column sig

I started seeing them there a few weeks ago, not recalling them near my cabin feeders before. When they showed up, I also noted that the most common mammal to invade the feeder seemed absent. These seemingly new arrivals were red squirrels, invading a territory that has usually been dominated by gray squirrels, and occasionally black versions of the grays.

Red squirrels are about half the size of the more common grays, but over the years, I have learned size does not matter when it comes to these two squirrel family members. When they both have been in the same proximity, as I often saw at Quarry Hill, it seemed like the grays yielded to the reds. Most recently, for just a few weeks, I was seeing reds at my backwaters cabin, with few to no grays present.

Red squirrels, like the larger grays, are native to Minnesota, and, according to the Department of Natural Resources website, are currently found in every county. Oddly, however, the same site shows their range not occupying counties in the far southwest portion of the state. Besides their size difference, the red their name implies is another characteristic that separates them from the grays.

It should be noted that another state squirrel, the fox squirrel, is also reddish-colored, but much larger than even the grays, and a brighter red, making it easy to distinguish from the red squirrels. Although I’ve seen fox squirrels near my cabin and near Quarry Hill, I don’t ever recall them coming to feeders at either location.

Countrywide, the range of the red squirrel also differentiates it from that of grays that are found throughout the eastern half of the country. The reds, for reasons related to their food preference, are found extending south from Canada and east from Minnesota to the Atlantic, plus the Rockies to Arizona.

Gray squirrel

Red squirrels have been invading a territory that has usually been dominated by gray squirrels. (Greg Munson)

Pine squirrels, another name given to red squirrels, gives away the historically favorite food source of red squirrels, and thus somewhat defines why their range is the more northern areas of the U.S. and much of Canada, as well as the Rockies. This food source would be the seeds found in cones of spruce, fir and pine trees, which they eat in large quantities. Proof of that are the stashes of cones they hide for winter, or just piles of the cone scales that they carefully pull apart to yield the tiny seeds between the scales.

I have seen small piles of these discarded scales, sometimes called “middens,” which generally refers to a “refuse dump,” and is also used to describe piles of discarded seashells. One site I found showed a red squirrel midden of cone scales below a bunch of spruce trees that was many feet across and a few feet high. That being said, red squirrels will also eat a variety of other foods, including tree and flower buds, fleshy fruits, bird eggs, insects and even mushrooms, which they supposedly dry before stashing.

Given that their range seems to be expanding into hardwood forest settings, I suspected they may include other seeds, such as acorns and walnuts, in their diets, but red not acorns, and yes to walnuts. But, I do know they like sunflower seeds, based upon all we fed them at Quarry Hill, and now at my cabin.

Red squirrel

Red squirrels are about half the size of the more common grays. (Greg Munson)

Worldwide, I learned that red squirrels are under invasion by the 19th-century introduction of gray squirrels in England and their spread to much of the U.K. since. In Wales, biologists trap gray squirrels, and then, according to the site I found, “bludgeon them to death with a large stick.” I can understand the need for some type of control, but wonder if a more humane way should be implored. So, hopefully both red and gray squirrels can continue living in relative harmony around here, and similar control tactics do not have to be used.

While red squirrels have many natural predators, humans also “harvest” many, with Canada yielding about $1 million of red squirrel fur each year. And, in the U.S., hundreds of thousands are shot each year, although at a total body weight of less than half a pound, I suspect most don’t make it to the dinner table.

As usual, I will look forward to hearing from readers of any red squirrel experiences they have had.

Greg Munson is a volunteer naturalist and freelance writer. If you have questions, comments or column ideas, contact Munson at naturenutgm@gmail.com.

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