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COLUMN: Feisty red squirrels are small but mighty forces

Red squirrel spends much of its time doing battle against other squirrels, woodpeckers, owls and others in the woodlot to protect its winter bounty
20121102_Valk Valley_Red Squirel (Hawke) (2)
This red squirrel may look cute, but to those who dare enter its territory, beware!

The pattern of holes in the snow revealed where a red squirrel had come forth from the distance sheltering spruce trees, tunnelling under the fresh fallen snow for about a metre, popping up to get its bearing, then tunnelling again for another metre or so.

The lure of peanuts and sunflower seeds was strong, so the little imp risked this crossing of the open garden area, hoping to find food and not become food.

On a busy day, there are four red squirrels that compete with each other for an easy meal in our backyard. Whenever an animal 'competes' for something it means valuable time is lost from doing something useful; instead of just enjoying the free seeds, most of their time is spent chasing each other away from the feeders.

Back and forth they go, small flashes of reddish brown between the trees as one or another tries to claim the entire area for their own.

Of course the birds and visiting gray squirrels get to chow down while Little Red blasts around, exhausting himself. Occasionally, there is a winner within the red squirrel arena and then comes the challenge of now evicting those big black and gray cousins from the feeders.

The other day a pileated woodpecker dropped in to see if the suet blocks were available; unfortunately, its timing coincided with a "Hell-bent-for-leather" red squirrel extravaganza. Having just succeeded in bullying three rivals to retreat from the area, the champion looked up and saw the woodpecker!

The cocky little red squirrel rushed at the woodpecker, its rusty-red tail flicking so fast it's a blur. Upset? You bet. The woodpecker politely went around and up the trunk a ways, but the squirrel continued its vexatious attack, finally annoying the woodpecker so much so that it departed.

Movement from within the woodlot brings attention to the arrival of two large black squirrels, their furtive movements indicating an impending attack on the sunflower seeds.

Just as the boldest of the two makes ready for its dash across the open yard between the woodlot and bird feeder, a blur of reddish furred fury hits home.

The black squirrel retreats with great haste, retracing its trail back along the thick tree branch, with the irate red squirrel nipping at its hind end and belly. Upon reaching the main trunk the black squirrel bolts further up the tree, leaving little red looking quite pleased with itself for a job well done.

However, now the second black squirrel descends from above, somewhat hesitant but obviously about to attempt the sunflower seed hustle. As it nears the end of an overhanging branch, the feisty red squirrel again blasts down the branch to give this one a taste of his temper, as if it should have learned from the other's retreat not to mess with this feeding station.

As we watch, the black squirrel does a quick roll under the branch and the red squirrel rockets past, suddenly finding itself now doing a poor imitation of a flying squirrel. From a height of about thirty feet the little guy falls, writhing, to disappear with a "poof" into the snow below.

During that brief moment between launch and impact, the two black squirrels pause, watched their falling opponent with great interest. I don't know what their thoughts were, but it was probably either, "Serves you right, you idiot!" or "Wow, that looks like fun!"

The red squirrel pops up from under the snow and bounds to the rail fence to shake off some excess snow. It doesn't go after the other squirrels again, its pride being too severely damaged.

Red squirrels have lived in our region ever since conifer trees began showing up after the last glacier melted away. The squirrel's penchant of hiding cones in large piles (for a winter food supply) has been responsible for the range extension of pine trees over the last many centuries.

However, to the dismay of humans who try to grow nice straight pine trees, red squirrels often eat the tender leader bud at each branch tip, resulting in a tree with a misshapen form. You can either love 'em or hate 'em.

Another interesting relationship between people and red squirrels can be found within our hunting and trapping regulations. With the proper licences and within the open season, gray (or black) squirrels may be hunted, but not red squirrels. The reason red squirrels are not available to small-game hunters is because they are listed in Ontario as a furbearer (such as a beaver, muskrat or other species sought for its pelt), which means you must have a trapper's licence to take red squirrels.

In the 2017-18 Ontario fur harvest period the average price paid for a red squirrel pelt was $0.81; back in 1971 a good squirrel pelt could fetch $0.56 at the fur auction. All of which means that it is not financially rewarding to go out trapping red squirrels, so there is virtually no pressure put on the squirrels by trappers, and legally none from hunters.

So if Little Red can avoid great horned owls, barred owls, goshawks, ravens, and fishers it can live a life of relative security. Which seems to give it lots of time to harass its natural neighbours.