Squirreling Away for Winter

For some weeks red squirrels have been gathering cones. Although that sounds rather casual it’s serious business.

Red squirrel

Unlike some of their cousins, including Columbian ground squirrels, red squirrels don’t hibernate but stay active all winter. If the weather is extremely cold they remain in their nest but otherwise it’s not unusual to see them out in the snow.

Red squirrel

It always surprises me that the tiny seeds of spruce cones provide them with enough energy.  It’s double duty right now — eating enough to put on some weight and storing enough to see them through to spring. Those cones, along with the mushrooms they’ve harvested and dried, should do the trick.

Red squirrel

Red squirrel    Tamiasciurus hudsonicus

Whose Bones?

As I followed a narrow trail not far from the red squirrel penthouse  a flash of white caught my eye.  A small skull, about 7 cm long (2.7 in), lay in the deep moss, a few vertebrae loose behind it. The two halves of the lower jaw, just centimetres away, were almost buried in the soft green.

The remains had lain there for some time, all flesh gone, bleached by air and wind and dappled sun.

Who died? I found no other remains but the skull was enough.

Its sharp teeth — including “Dracula” incisors — said carnivore. But who? The shape and size narrowed it down to a member of the weasel family. Even that is a big group — weasels, mink, otters, fishers, wolverines, skunks, badgers, martens and black-footed ferrets.

I know the predators who live in our woods so that eliminated some of the weasel clan. My book of skull drawings and a quick check online gave me the answer: a marten (aka pine marten aka American pine marten).

About the size of a house cat, martens are highly adapted to life in the forest. They’re fast, sleek and skilled at climbing. We once watched a life-and-death chase between a marten and a red squirrel in our yard. They were a blur of fur going up, down and around the spruce trees, leaping from branch to branch and tree to tree.

After several minutes the chase moved from our yard further into the woods. I’m not sure how it ended but it was one of those I-don’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing  moments.

Google “images pine marten” to see what they look like.

Marten   Martes americana
Red squirrel   Tamiasciuris hudsonicus


Over the years numerous red squirrels have staked their claim to this large stump and the midden that surrounds it. Middens and squirrels are common in our woods but this arrangement is different from most.

I spotted the cone pile first, right on top. An odd choice as cones are usually stored underground.

Alongside the cones was another surprise — a nest of dried grass and moss. And sitting in the nest, the current owner, with a great view of the neighbourhood.

On rainy days, the owner is absent so perhaps he (or she) is tucked down in the midden, safe and dry.

Red squirrel   Tamiasciuris hudsonicus
White spruce   Picea glauca


I was walking on moss between the trees. Especially quiet I guess. Suddenly the air exploded — I’d surprised a red squirrel who let off a torrent of verbal abuse.

I stood still and spoke softly. It took a few moments of one-sided conversation but curiousity got the better of the young squirrel. He (or  she?) came closer. And closer.

Finally, figuring I posed no threat, he went back to what he was doing before I’d interrupted. But the “what” puzzled me.

After several minutes I realized he was chewing off all the twigs and sharp branch ends along the fallen spruce, making a path the length of the tree. You need a clear get-away if danger is chasing you.

Clever fellow, that squirrel.

Red squirrel   Tamiasciuris hudsonicus
White spruce   Picea glauca


High-pitched scolding sounds the alarm as I approach: There’s a stranger in the forest.

Who are you? Friend? Foe?

As the threat level subsides the trilling chatter fades. But black eyes still watch as I squat down with my camera.

Moments later the guardian is off and stillness folds around me again.

Red squirrel   Tamiasciuris hudsonicus

Black Holes

Okay. Best guess: What is this?

If your hand shot up and you shouted: “That’s the lower jaw of an elk and those holes are where its front teeth used to be!” go right to the head of the class.

This bone sits on a pile in our yard. On rambles through the woods we’ve picked up jawbones, vertebrae, ribs, skulls, shoulder blades, pelvises, teeth and long bones.

Not sure why. Kind of a packrat thing.

Red tree squirrels love it all. It’s where they come when they need a calcium hit.

Squirrels, like us, need calcium for strong bones.

They get it from several places — eggshells (think birds’ nests), mushrooms (fresh or dried, which they dry themselves), other plants, insects and bones.

Note the fresh white scratches on this bone: Squirrel nibblings.

Me? I prefer milk.


Elk   Cervus canadensis
Red tree squirrel    Tamiasciurus hudsonicus