Klemek: Red squirrels are full of zest, but underappreciated
North America is home to many species of squirrels. These arboreal rodents, all of them active the year around, are among the most commonly observed groups of wildlife. As at home in the wilderness as some species are within inner city neighborhoods, squirrels are nearly everywhere where there are trees.
In Minnesota alone, five species of tree squirrels call the Land of 10,000 Lakes home.
The most ubiquitous of the five, the gray squirrel, is the most widespread of them all. Fox squirrels, which are the largest species, are more common throughout the western side of the state. The other three — red squirrel, northern flying squirrel and southern flying squirrel — are also fairly prevalent Minnesota squirrels.
I will say, however, of these five fascinating squirrels, red squirrels are my favorite of them all. Full of personality and zest, covered in attractive red-colored fur coats, and brimming with interesting habits to observe and study, red squirrels are proof positive that where size is lacking, energy and enthusiasm are equal substitutes.
A few Octobers ago after returning to our tent after a long day hunting deer and elk in the Colorado Rockies, I announced to my hunting partners that I had cracked the red squirrel code.
During lunchtime that day as I sat on the ground peacefully eating my lunch while enjoying a mountain vista, I heard the distant chatter of a red squirrel. Not an unfamiliar sound anywhere in the Rocky Mountains or back home in Minnesota, I didn’t pay much attention to the vocalizations, until, that is, the squirrel spotted me.
It surprised me how quickly the little fellow closed the gap between itself and me, and before I knew it the red squirrel (called pine squirrel or chickaree out west) had parked itself on a prominent limb of a tree just a dozen feet from my outstretched legs and boots. The animal then commenced a near unending series of ear-piercing barking, scolding, and ranting as I’ve ever heard come out of a red squirrel’s mouth.
At any moment I was certain that the squirrel — probably a territorial, dominant male — would tire of its assault and leave me alone. Alas, it was not to be. For as soon as he took a breath, the admonishment continued on and on, ad nauseum.
I began to imagine what he was saying to me, which I told my pals back at camp, “Zip-it. Zip-it. Zip-it. Zip-zip-zip zip-it!” And so forth, never changing much in tempo or varying much in length and intensity. As it was, the squirrel got his wish—I packed up in a huff and left him alone.
Red squirrels, like all squirrels, spend most of their day looking for food and eating food.
In the wintertime they seek out the many hundreds of food caches that they made throughout late summer and fall. Here in northern Minnesota and elsewhere, red squirrel caches are typically comprised of green spruce and pine cones.
Red squirrel caches are usually hidden in large piles of debris, normally the scales of pine cones, at the bases of pine trees. Called middens, these mounds can get huge. In the Rocky Mountains where I’ve encountered many a midden, the piles can be as big as 10 or more yards wide and 20 or more yards deep.
Inside red squirrel middens are their hidden treasures—pine seeds, green cones, and other seeds and nuts. Red squirrels will pack dozens of green pine or spruce cones into holes they dig within their middens. Bears sometime raid middens for the nutritious, high-protein food caches that the red squirrels worked so tirelessly creating, whereas elk often use middens to bed on or wallow in. And though Minnesota’s red squirrels construct middens, too, I’ve never stumbled upon as massive a midden here at home as those I’ve come across in the Rocky Mountain West.
Red squirrels are more than likely an underappreciated Minnesota mammal. Common as they are, this lively species of squirrel is as entertaining and remarkable an animal anywhere as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.