Squirrels are polarizing creatures, people love to hate them. The Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) of North America is no exception to this. In New England this common little red and black squirrel is particularly reviled by many people.
Chickarees (Chickaree is a local New England onomatopoeic name) are fiercely territorial, ill mannered, noisy, chew holes in people’s houses, and raid the nest of birds, eating eggs and baby birds. As you walk through the woods these fiery little creatures will drop what they are doing and run to harangue you, precariously balancing on thin branches a few feet over-head, twitching, chirping, and generally expressing their dissatisfaction with your presence.
A legend attributed to the Abenaki people relates how when the world was young red squirrels were enormous, the size of large bears. Life was hard for the people and the rest of the wildlife in the forest as these enormous beasts would raid long-houses, carrying people off to devour them, chase away game, and pillage the fields, eating all the corn and squash just as it ripened. The people begged the creator to do something about the marauding squirrels. In response to their prayers the red squirrels were made smaller, small enough to fit in one’s hand. Despite their small size, their fierce nature remained intact.
Today they raid our bird feeders instead of our long-houses.
I think they are wonderful little creatures. I admire their boldness, agility, and integral role in keeping the forest healthy.
Red Squirrels and their cousins, the Douglas Squirrel and the Mearn’s Squirrel, fall into the category of Pine Squirrels, and have an enormous range.
Squirrels are, in many ways, a keystone species. They, along with jays, distribute seeds, carefully planting them in storage caches where uneaten seeds germinate far from the parent tree. Red squirrels are a primary food source for northern goshawks, ermine, martin, fisher, red-tailed hawk, lynx, bobcat, and long-tailed weasel. They eat the new buds of many tree species, effectively pruning the trees promoting branching which leads to long term increases in leaf density and seed production.
The discovery of maple syrup is attributed to observation of red squirrels chewing through the bark of sugar maples to drink the sweet sap. Native people copied this, collecting the sap in wood and bark trenchers to dry, concentrating the syrup. European colonists refined this process further, but it is not so different from what the red squirrels did and still do in the woods.
Like all rodents, their front teeth never stop growing, and they must gnaw on things to keep their teeth short. It is common to find bones and antlers gnawed for the calcium they contain. We complain when they chew through eaves of our houses, gnaw the handles of our tools, or demolish our bird feeders, but it is not really their fault. We are the ones who left those things where the squirrels could reach them, knowing full well the proclivities of these sparky little creatures.
If you walk in the New England woods you cannot but help hearing or seeing these feisty fellows. Often they will be perched just above you, twitching and glaring.
If you walk quietly and slowly they may not notice your presence, and you may find one sitting in the sun calmly grooming itself.