There are many species we take for granted, usually the most common ones, but I often enjoy considering the dandelions, pigeons, and mice among us a little more closely. Take the red squirrel, for example. I have become so accustomed to their bold, chattering shouts from their evergreen homes whenever I have come too close that I have found myself easily ignoring their territorial exclamations out of habit and annoyance. One day this fall, however, I found one of these intrepid rodents exclaiming its domain so close to me that I could not help but stop and wonder. I was reminded of an experience my husband and I had while observing red squirrels in Wyoming three years ago (excerpt from a Species Account of the Red Squirrel by Joe Horn, 2013):
“My partner and I were wandering by Ditch Creek in pursuit of a recent hatch of any number of a species of mayflies that could be present (order Ephemeroptera). It was certainly to our surprise when the delicate nature of the birds chirping, the creek burbling, and the gentle padding of our feet were immediately overwhelmed by the alarm call of the small yet charismatic red squirrel.
Following our ears and later our eyes we tracked this noise to a dense clumping of three blue spruce trees (Picea pungens) which had an even thicker tangle of snowberry (Symphoricarpus alba) and juniper (Juniperus communis) below. My eyes first caught him as he was in mid flight from the branch of one of the spruce trees down to the ground where he promptly found a blue spruce cone and scrambled up to the nearest branch to indulge in its nutritive offerings.
Before long, my new friend must have felt uneasy with his mealtime habits being observed by us and like a little lightning bolt of fur with a thunderclap of claws on bark he was up three branches higher to finish his work. From his new vantage point he clearly felt more secure with our being a mere ten feet from him for he turned the cone around and around with his little hands and worked the scales to shreds with his razor sharp chiseling teeth. After snapping a few pictures to memorialize this encounter, my partner and I quietly and swiftly departed the company of our friend and the clump of spruces he called home.”
So, why would this small creature so be so brazen about announcing its presence? Joe tells us more:
“The red squirrel is a greatly territorial species which only tolerates intruders when they are potential mates and the squirrel is reproductively receptive. To stave off intruders they often use an alarm call which is often mistaken by the uniformed populous to be a bird. The call is a loud piercing “Churr—“with a duration of one to four seconds. The squirrel may throw tree debris on large intruders whereas they will chase away smaller ones from their domain in a vicious flurry of fur, teeth, and claws!
This territorial behavior may seem odd from such a cute little fellow but as a species that does not use hibernation as a strategy to get through the long harsh winters of their Northern Tier distribution, they rely instead on their closely guarded food caches. The favored food store for the red squirrel is spruce cones due to their thin scales and nutritious seeds. Thusly, their territory generally includes many spruce trees such as the blue spruces observed in this species account. These thick spruce and fir dominated forests also make ideal habitat due to their closed canopy which provides excellent protection from predators such as hawks, martins, and owls.”
We all are living in uncertain, worrying times. Much like the red squirrel, we all need a habitat that provides our basic needs, such as food and water. Protecting those places is the right of every species and requisite for our shared futures. The more we observe and listen to the lives around us, the better we will be prepared to create the future that supports us all. When you’re next outside, I encourage you to focus on the familiar. What or who have you stopped considering altogether?