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Nature’s Best By Elma Chapman - Squirrel Tails

The squirrel circus continues outside my window. They clean up any spilled bird seed and eat the corn in the trough feeder. I haven’t caught one on a feeder yet, but that day will come. I’m sure they’ll find a way to get to my sunflower seed!

Indiana has four species of tree squirrels: the eastern gray squirrel (which is sometimes black), the red squirrel (also sometimes called a pine squirrel), the flying squirrel (which only glides and can’t really fly), and the fox squirrel.

The fox squirrel is the largest of the four types, weighing up to three pounds. It’s the tawny squirrel. All tree squirrels have bushy tails, but the fox squirrel has the bushiest. One source I read said that fox squirrels were less agile than the gray squirrels and that they sometimes misstep and fall out of trees, but usually don’t get hurt.

Like all rodents, squirrels have gnawing teeth in front that never stop growing. They have separate chewing teeth farther back in the jaw.

In the winter squirrels may use tree cavities for dens, sometimes using a hole previously made by a woodpecker. These dens are used for protection from the weather as well as raising late-winter litters. Squirrels breed twice a year, once in December or January and again in July. They typically have three pups, smaller litters than other rodents, but they are more successful in raising their young to adulthood than many other animals which have a higher mortality rate and thus need to have larger litters to maintain their population.

When a tree cavity is not available, squirrels weave a nest by cutting twigs while the leaves are still green. Green leaves don’t fall off the branches like autumn leaves do, even when the green has turned to brown. I’ve often wondered how those leaf nests hold together, especially in high winds. Now I know: they are woven together by the twigs.

Squirrels are omnivores. In the fall and winter they eat nuts, but at other times of year they will eat tree buds, berries, moths, beetles, insect larvae, bird eggs and even nestlings. They hide their nuts underground and often can’t remember all their favorite hiding places, so they are actually quite efficient foresters planting new trees each year.

Mother Nature can be a tough old lady. In the wild, the race is on to reproduce before you become someone’s dinner. Few wild animals die of old age; rather they become slower with age or careless and thus become someone else’s prey. Squirrels are preyed upon by hawks, owls, and in some places by snakes and bobcats. Squirrels may live to the ripe old age of 18, but six years is more normal.

Two days ago I watched a squirrel in a fight for its life. It had been in a tree with thorns and small red fruit. (Maybe I can identify it next year when it has leaves again). I enjoyed watching the squirrel do its trapeze artistry to get out to the one remaining berry at the end of a branch. It tried various routes as the small branches sank beneath its weight, but ultimately, with perseverance and good balance it got its last fruit and munched away happily on a sturdier branch.

A little later I looked out and the squirrel appeared to be hanging by its tail. Poor thing, it would grab a twig with its front legs and pull and pull with its little hind legs kicking furiously in the air and finally would lose its grip on the branch and dangle. After catching its breath it would try again. It appeared to me that it had somehow gotten its tail caught on one of the thorns or else it had a burr in its tail that got wedged in a fork in the tree.

It was well beyond my reach, even with a ladder, so there was nothing to do to help it. I kept watching the sky, expecting a red-tailed hawk to swoop in and grab the poor fellow. He was quite frantic, and for good reason. After about 10 minutes he made one final effort, grabbed a branch and pulled for all he was worth. This time: success! He got his tail free and headed for the tree trunk. I watched him for a while and it seemed his tail was a little limp at the end. It kind of flopped over, but it wasn’t bad enough to cause him to lose his balance as he worked his way back deeper into the woods moving from tree to tree.

I’ll have to keep an eye out for him in the next couple of days to see how he is surviving. I guess I wouldn’t even mind if he got into my sunflower seed occasionally, now that I have seen how precarious his existence can be.