Mammals: Red Squirrel

The loud, ratchet like call of the territorial red squirrel was beginning to aggravate the quiet, concealed deer hunter. Just as he contemplated drilling it with his 30-06 rifle, he noticed a chocolate form in the shadows of the same tree the squirrel was chirping from. The medium sized pine marten leaped out along the main branch and grabbed the squirrel behind the neck. In a minute, all was again quiet in the forest...

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Also called the pine squirrel, the Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) is a non-migratory rodent. They are slightly larger than a chipmunk, about 6-8 inches long with a 4-inch bushy tail. Weighing in at approximately 8 ounces, they have reddish fur and a white underbelly.    

Red squirrels are a largely aboreal, forest dwelling species associated with coniferous tree types. In Kootenai Country Montana, they are commonly found in stands of Lodgepole pine, Ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, Sub-alpine fir, and Engleman spruce. Technically, they are considered granivores, which are seed predators. These squirrels dine mostly on serotinous cone crops, meaning the seeds are released in response to environmental triggers such as fire or excessive moisture. Diet here may also consist of spruce buds and needles, mushrooms, Quaking aspen buds and catkins, Bearberry, flowers, and berries. They will often stash pine cones, and scales from consumed seed cones can be found in piles called middens. At rare times, they may be somewhat carnivorous eating bird eggs and young snowshoe hares.    

Pine squirrels are mostly diurnal, and will assertively defend year round exclusive territories. One method they defend these 1-2 acre ranges, is by challenging intruders by emitting repetitive high pitched chatter. Interestingly, red squirrels are actually fairly good swimmers. Nests are made of grasses in tree branches, in mistletoe witches brooms, or in cavities in trees. These squirrels may have several nests within their territories, and move young between nests. Red squirrels commonly have one litter per year. Young are born in March through May, and the young are altricial, meaning they are incapable of moving on their own and require nourishment from the mother. Females may mate with several males, and genetic relatedness may not play as a factor.    

Tracks may appear as a bounding trail in snow, and pine squirrels sometimes tunnel in snow. Predators of these squirrels include Canadian lynx, bobcats, coyote, Great Horned owls, Northern Goshawks, red-tailed hawks, American crows, red fox, wolves, weasels and quite often pine martens.    

(Author’s Note: Reference - Montana Field Guides, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.)