Pine Cone-Hoarding Red Squirrel Keeps Its Eyes On You

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Pine Cone-Hoarding Red Squirrel Keeps Its Eyes On You

“There is something very human in this apparent mirth and mockery of the squirrels. It seems to be a sort of ironical laughter and implies self-conscious pride and exultation in the laughter.”

From “Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers” by John Burroughs

It was one of those glorious fall days – bright sunshine, cool temperatures and foliage a blaze of colors. A group of us ventured into the woods in the Hanover section of Sprague when my friend, Dick Waterman, discovered an odd assemblage of 100 or more pine cones. They were perfectly lined up, parallel to each other in a long row on the forest floor. It was as if a child had purposely collected them and placed each together touching in a line. He then found two other groupings of cones — one in less organized rows on the ground and the second a pile of about 20 tucked up against the side of a stone wall. “What in the world do you think put these here?” he asked.

The tall white pine tree just a few feet away was clearly the source of the pine cones, but which creature had left them in a perfect row was a mystery. I surmised it might be the noisy red squirrel known to dine on the cones of many conifer species. During winter forest rambles, I frequently find piles of chewed up cones at the base of a pine tree – the handy work of the ever-hungry red squirrel. I snapped a couple of pictures and sent them to Connecticut DEEP Wildlife Biologist Pete Picone, and he confirmed our suspicion with a reply of, “Cool observation! Could very well be a red squirrel stash of cones.”

With the mystery solved, I did a bit of research on Tamiasciurus hudsonicus and am glad to share information about the pine cone-hoarding red squirrel.

One of my favorite publications is Northern Woodlands magazine. They have published two books with a series of articles about the natural world – “The Outside Story,” volumes one and two. In volume two, I found an informative article by Michael Canduto called “Pine on the Cob” describing the red squirrel. Here are a few bits of information from his article:

“The cantankerous red squirrels are opportunistic feeders. Their diet consists mostly of vegetarian fare, but in addition to eating nuts, bark, roots, fruit, fungi, buds and flowers, they’ll partake of everything from insects, eggs, and baby birds to small reptiles, amphibians, mice, baby rabbits and even cast-off antlers.

“During the winter, red squirrels subsist on seeds of cones and may eat up to two-thirds of the pine seed crop produced in a forest each year. Other staples include the seeds of spruce and Eastern hemlock, they’ll also eat those of cedar, larch and many hardwoods.”

“A red squirrel will frequent the base of a particular pine tree to eat, chewing scales off the core of a cone the way people eat corn-on-the-cob. First it chews the scales off near the stem. As each scale falls away, a pair of seeds is exposed. Because each subsequent scale lies up the cone and a small turn along the spiral, the squirrel must twirl the cone as it eats. Mounds of discarded scales and naked cone-cores pile up wherever a red squirrel partakes of its pine-on-the-cob.”

“They breed from about mid-January through mid-February, often during thaws. Dens are in hollow trees, especially old woodpecker nests. Litters of two to five hairless squirrellets arrive about a month after mating. Young grow quickly under the female’s care, start to wander from the nest at around six weeks and are weaned in about two months.”

The term “cantankerous” perfectly describes the red squirrel. A walk through a mixed deciduous and conifer forest will usually be interrupted by the chatter of a red squirrel, especially if you’re near its nest or cache of food. They make a variety of noises from chattering to a screeching noise similar to that call of a blue jay. If a hawk or other predator is nearby they make a barking alarm call like a “kuk” or “quaa” and a buzzing sound.

The red squirrel is smaller than the gray squirrel and weighs only about 7 ounces. Its bushy tail is slender and almost as long as the length of its head and body, with a total length of about 12 inches. Its coat is a rusty, reddish brown in summer that turns slightly grayer in winter. The underside is white, and it has a white eye-ring. The male and female are equal in size.

If you see a pile of pine cones in the woods, all chewed up and discarded, or left in piles or neat rows for future use, then you’ll know red squirrels are about. You may hear the squirrels and not see them, but they’re keeping a watchful eye. This time of year, they are hoarding and storing food to get them through the winter months. Please, leave their stash where you find it.

We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. Finding a cache of pine cones left by a red squirrel tells us winter will be here soon. They remain active throughout the year, and so do we. I hope you’ll join me and others as we care for, enjoy and pass on this place we call home.

Bill Reid is the chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.

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