Sunday, February 14, 2010
Red squirrel baffles wildlife scientists
The red squirrel like the one above is probably the most noticeable creature in the north woods.
It is virtually impossible to go anywhere without seeing this noisy acrobat of the trees.
In summer it eats a wide variety of vegetation and seeds. In Northern Ontario the only nut is the hazelnut and these are especially treasured by Old Reddy. In fact, it is possible for a human to live his or her entire life in Northern Ontario and never see a mature hazelnut. The squirrels always get every one.
Squirrels also eat mushrooms which they first dry by laying them on tree limbs. I've heard that some of these mushrooms are poisonous, even to squirrels, but that the act of drying makes them safe for the squirrel to eat.
Squirrels also eat a lot of animal matter, especially insects, but small birds and mammals as well.
Their main food and probably their only meals in the winter, come from eating the tiny seeds on each scale of spruce, pine and balsam cones. They leave heaps of these shucked scales all over the place.
Some years the conifers produce far more cones than other years. It makes sense then that the red squirrel population is higher during those years since there is more food available.
Incredibly, however, the squirrels know in advance which years will produce the most cones and give birth to more young than usual just before the cones are created.
There is no cycle to the high-cone-producing years. It's not that every fourth year, say, is a heavy cone producer.
Foresters and biologists can't see how the squirrels know to have bigger litters before the cones have even started to form on the trees. Or for that matter, how they can increase their litter size at all.
Humans can't tell that one year will be a heavy cone producing one until the cones have formed.
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