Perhaps because it’s going to be an early winter — many trees are already turning, and I’m shedding tears for them — the red squirrels are out in force this weekend, hunting around our neck ‘o the woods in the Shawangunk Mountains in Southern New York state. From my bedroom window today (while half watching Project Runway), I’ve counted three red squirrels racing around the long branches of the hemlocks that surround our home. Their routine: They grab a tiny pinecone (hemlock cones seem custom fit for the diminutive red squirrel), strip it of the seeds, then race back to their den. They’ve been at it hours, looking like frantic commuters scurrying out of the trains at Grand Central, desperate to keep up with the near panic of going, going, going.
Of course, I didn’t bring my Nikon this weekend, thinking the dreary weather wouldn’t inspire me to take any photos. Wrong. Always wrong. So far, this is the best shot I’ve gotten, and because it’s so lame, I iPhoned-edited it all to hell to make it look more like a painting.
(Frequent readers of Squirrels, Squirrels, Squirrels know that the masthead above is a red squirrel, a favorite of Joy’s.)
Good question, right?
According to Aiken-Standard columnist Bill Hayes, it’s complicated. He wasn’t sure himself so he did a lot of research, such as:
“I found all sorts of stories about Native Americans eating acorns as part of their daily diet. I also found one article that said that the average life span of the American Indian was 30 years but made no reference to acorns as being part of the problem. Because of the high tannin content in red acorns the bitterness was probably strong enough to discourage all but the very hungry.”
As it turns out, some acorns — but not all — are poisonous. And a little biological mechanism at work known as adaptation helps our squirrel friends eat most acorns without any problems.
Read Bill’s column to find out what that adaptation is, and which acorns should stay out of your daily recommended allowance.
Sadly, there are no squirrels in my neighborhood to feed, but my parents put out corn for their South Texas squirrels.
In a recent survey, the National Bird-Feeding Society asked what people feed squirrels, and why. I could only find this information from an outdoors column in the Rhinelander Wisconsin Daily News, otherwise I would publish more details. According to the Daily News, respondents said:
For, why they fed squirrels:
Fun to watch: 38 percent
Love: 23 percent
Need: 20 percent (??? have no idea what this means — any guesses?)
What did they feed them?
Corn: 41 percent
Seed: 27 percent
Nuts: 25 percent”
What do you feed your squirrels?
(The column also noted they seek out natural sources of salt, which is why they sometimes go to salted roads in the winter.)
(Pumpkin Eater, originally uploaded by JCDogginit.)
(Busted, originally uploaded by ★keaggy.com.)
(Mmmm… Acorns!, originally uploaded by shesnuckinfuts.)
Quick fact: The amount of urban wildlife you see each year is often dependent on how well your trees are doing. Specifically, the more acorns that oaks can produce, the more your squirrels can reproduce, too.
Random anecdote: One year I noticed a disturbing amount of dead squirrels lining the roadways in Westchester County, NY. Every few feet there was a dead squirrel, its fluffy little tail still waving in the wind.
I was a newspaper reporter, and so I used that as an excuse to do a little investigating and call people who would know what was up. Turns out that the previous year was a very good year for acorn production, which meant there was roughly double the amount of young squirrels. Frenzied to collect food for the coming winter, these juveniles were running about, rashly crossing roadways, ending up as roadkill.
As the state biologist told me, it had a way of bringing the squirrel numbers back down to normal, albeit in a particularly gruesome way. I haven’t quite seen the same phenomena since, because I got a job in Manhattan, where squirrels are far more savvy to human dangers, like cars.
For more on the connection between acorns and wildlife, read Acorns vital to natural balance.