Little Lives of Earth and Form
The Lord of the Trees
By Tamia Nelson
April 28, 2009
Day was drawing to a close as we approached the international bridge. We still had many miles to go before we reached our destination in northern Québec, but we'd already been on the road a long time and we were tired. So we bailed out at a state campsite just south of the border. After a hasty meal I took my tea to the base of a tall pine and leaned back. Swallows swooped low over a slow-moving river. I dozed. Then something hit the top of my head and bounced off. I looked down. I'd been thumped by a pine cone. I rubbed my scalp. Oh, well, I thought, just a once-in-a-lifetime thing. No problem. And I closed my eyes again. But not for long. Only a minute later, a second cone hit me. I looked up into the crown of the pine. No breeze stirred the branches. I rubbed my head again, as much in puzzlement as pain. Then I moved a few feet away from the towering pine's massive trunk and stretched out. Soon I was nodding off. My nap was a short one, however. A third cone hit me right in the solar plexus.
I eyeballed the topmost branches of the pine once more, and this time I struck pay dirt. A diminutive red squirrel stared down at me from a perch at the end of a long limb. It was obvious that I'd been trespassing on his turf. OK. I figured it was time for me to move on, anyway. So I did, walking a few yards and settling down under a neighboring pine. I was in the process of lifting my mug to my mouth when a fourth pine cone landed right in my tea. I mopped my face with my bandanna before looking up. Sure enough, a now-familiar figure was clinging to a branch in the top of the second pine. And just to make certain I'd gotten his message, he gave vent to a lusty churrrrr.
Retreat was the only option. I decamped to my tent. But that didn't bring a halt to the harassing fire. Cones rained down on the tent fly at irregular intervals until long after the sun had dipped below the horizon.
Message received. And understood.
This happened almost thirty years ago, on the eve of my first Big Trip. I'd seen red squirrels before, of course, but I'd never paid much attention to them. My mind was mostly on the birds, I suppose, and if I thought about the members of the "red guard" at all, it was as smaller and more frenetic imitators of their gray cousins, those phlegmatic habitués of city park and rural garden. Now, however, I was headed Up North, deep into the heartland of…
The Realm of the Red Squirrel
It was, in many senses, an eye-opening experience. Creatures that I'd only glimpsed at a distance—or seen in photos in glossy magazines—were now my next-door neighbors. Muskrats watched our party's leisurely progress downriver from their vantage points in marshy grottoes. Beavers went about their business on our doorstep as we made camp. Mink and moose came by for a look and stayed for a chat. Common mergansers and common loons were everywhere, common in fact as well as name for the first time in my life. It was a little like stepping into one of those "peaceable kingdom" paintings that were all the rage in the 19th century, albeit without the lions. I'd always imagined my grandfather's Adirondack cabin to be deep in the wilderness. Now I was traveling through the real thing. (Or so I thought at the time. Later, I came to understand that wilderness is largely in the mind.) Wilderness or not, though, I'd definitely entered the Realm of the Red Squirrel. The rufous little acrobats were everywhere, staring in surly silence from outposts atop lightning-blasted spruces as we paddled along the rocky shores of lakes and felt our way down rapids, then scolding us tirelessly while we pitched our tents and stretched our tarps each evening.
I can't say why I'd given these indefatigable creatures short shrift before, but the representatives of their tribe that I met in Québec were determined to raise my consciousness—and they did. Now I see them (and hear them) wherever I travel in Canoe Country. And here's what I've learned:
Red squirrels are smaller than grays. They could hunker down on the palm of your hand—if they wanted to, that is. But such easy familiarity doesn't appeal. Little Red keeps himself to himself. That doesn't mean he's shy, though. (For simplicity's sake, I'll call the subject of this portrait "he," though he could obviously be a she. It doesn't make much difference. She's not shy, either.) He's quick to let you know exactly where you stand in his estimation. Don't get your hopes up. It won't be very high. No red squirrel has ever found himself at a loss for a cutting comment. And he's seldom idle. Whenever you see him, chances are good that he'll already be in motion. Or if not, he'll be on the move again before you can blink your eyes. Perhaps that's why the scribes who penned the Eddas gave the red squirrel they called Ratatosk ("Swift Teeth") the task of divine messenger, conveying insults between the dragon Nidhogg, whose lair lay among the roots of the World Tree, to the eagle perched high in the crown of that selfsame towering ash.
Ceaseless activity. Endless invective. The Icelandic scribes knew a thing or two. No better job could be found for any red squirrel. And what's true of one is even more true for two. Put a couple of red squirrels together, and they'll devote hours to pleasurable scrapping, spiraling up and down the tallest trees, churring and grumbling a never-ending litany of complaint as they go. On the rare occasions when they pause to rest, they'll stamp their feet and flick their tails as if the tips were catapults hurling lethal missiles. Still, the fun has to end sometime, and when at long last honor has been satisfied, the erstwhile rivals will retire to their favorite trees to preen, bask in the sun, and recharge their batteries, all the better to do battle tomorrow.
Which bring us to mealtimes. After all…
A Squirrel's Gotta Eat
Little Red's high-energy lifestyle demands a steady intake of high-energy foods. This will come as no surprise to hard-working paddlers, who already know about the link between intake and outgo. Squirrels are no different. They need to eat regularly, or they'll bonk. Luckily, red squirrels aren't fussy feeders. In late winter and early spring you'll find them noshing on the swelling buds of deciduous trees. They have a sweet tooth, too. When the returning sun starts the sap running in the sugarbush, and the maples' winter wounds start oozing sugary fluid, don't be startled if you see a red squirrel lapping up the bounty.
Later in the year, fruits and seeds appear on the menu, as does the occasional meat course: birds' eggs and nestlings are a sometime snack. Mostly, though, Little Red's meals are vegetarian. When mushrooms poke through the duff of the forest floor in summer and fall, he'll dine happily on them. He especially likes the plump, wine-red russulas. As most foodies learn early in their culinary careers, however, mushrooms don't keep well. But Little Red doesn't need to worry. He's mastered the art of air-drying, impaling mushrooms on broken-off branches and wedging them into bark crevices. Long after the mushrooms on the ground have dissolved in decay, the Lord of the Trees will be selecting treats from his stores. Apples figure high on his list of favorites, too, and any surplus fruit is also air dried. Waste not, want not is his mantra. This makes sense. Summer's lease is short in Canoe Country, and when the sun retreats south of the equator, red squirrels increasingly turn to the seeds of conifers, a food source that comes prepackaged in handy cones.
A few weeks back, when I went in search of photos to illustrate this article, I hiked through a mixed woodland on one of the ridges overlooking The River (you'll see a bit of it in the picture at the head of this section). White pines predominate along the ridge, but you'll also find white ash, sugar maples, American beech, black locust, and a few stray yellow birches. A deep, resilient drift of needles and leaves carpets the forest floor. But there aren't many cones to be seen. Why? I bet you've already guessed. This grove is home to many red squirrels, and they can think of better things to do with cones than leave them to rot on the ground. Instead, they gather them up and store them in pantries known as middens. (Confusingly, the same word is used to describe the pile of scraps left behind by a dining squirrel. Still, there is a connection, isn't there?)
You can find middens in almost any sheltered place. Tucked into the hollow formed by the branches of a wind-felled pine, for instance. Or stuffed inside the cavity at the center of a standing stump. Or secreted in deep crevices in rocks. Or buried in the duff underfoot. Whatever his chosen hidey-hole, however, Little Red doesn't wait for the cones to ripen and fall. He's too smart to make that mistake. Mature cones open and disperse their seeds to the four winds. So Red makes the rounds, visiting each of his trees, clipping off almost-ripe cones and letting them fall to earth, their contents still intact. Then he gathers up his harvest and carries it off to one of several middens. (No squirrel would put all his cones in one midden. That's far too risky.)
A red squirrel's middens are his pantry, of course, but they're a lot more than that. They're his savings account, as well. They're what he's put aside for a snowy day. And with no prospect of a government bail-out if the bank goes bust, he'll defend them to his last breath. Maybe that helps to explain Little Red's big temper. Trespassers, he reminds all passers-by, will be prosecuted. In the Realm of the Red Squirrel, there's no such thing as a free lunch.
As I expected, it didn't take me long to find a spot where a red squirrel had dined, and dined well:
Like us, Little Red enjoys his creature comforts. He wants to relax while he eats, and he likes a table with a view. Sometimes he settles down on a sun-warmed branch and uses the tree trunk as a backrest. At other times, he picnics on the toppled remains of a dead tree, on a stump, or on a sunny boulder. There's always a good-sized standing tree near at hand, though—in case he needs a quick escape route. The dining table pictured above filled the bill in every particular.
That being the case, I figured Little Red's pantry wouldn't be too far away, so I poked around to see what I could see. And this is what I found:
My boot toe points to a recently excavated midden storehouse and provides scale. The hole was deep—so deep that I could easily fit my fist and wrist inside. Look carefully and you'll see a scattering of cone scales at the base of the nearby pine. I'm betting that there's a branch with a view just overhead, well placed to catch the morning sun.
A little more poking about revealed this:
See the partially consumed cone? No? Then take a look at the retouched photo below. In it, I've highlighted the remnants of a recent meal.
And it was probably a good one. Several scales are still attached to the cone's core, but all the seeds are gone.
My knees let me know that it was time for me to straighten up. So I stood and stretched. Then I looked above me, and this is what I saw:
It looks like home to me. That is, it would look like home if I were the size of a red squirrel. And I'd be right. To Little Red, a dead tree is often…
Home Sweet Home
Red squirrels spend their days high up, so it's only natural that they'd spend their nights there, too. They sleep in tree holes and leaf "nests," basketball-sized orbs woven from needles, leaves, and branches. The nests are DIY projects for the most part, but the tree holes are often hand-me-downs, the large, squarish excavations left behind by foraging pileated woodpeckers, as well as the circular cavities made by their smaller counterparts. But don't mistake opportunism for indolence. Little Red's not lazy. He may take over a vacant lease, so to speak, but he always makes some improvements, lining the hand-me-down hollow with shredded bark and leaves. The result is a warm refuge on even the coldest, windiest winter nights.
Not all red squirrels are high livers, though. Some even dig ground burrows. It's a time-tested strategy, as generations of woodchucks and chipmunks can attest. And that's not the end of the story. Occasionally, Little Red is a cliff-dweller, setting up housekeeping in a squirrel-sized cleft in a bedrock outcrop, like this one:
It looks good, doesn't it? But I didn't find any evidence that a red squirrel called it home. The attractions of the tall pines were too great, I suppose, not to mention the value of protective coloration. While red squirrels aren't exactly reticent, there are many times when they prefer to be inconspicuous, and this is easier if they're up a tree rather than perched on a rock wall:
I shot the left photo in fall. Alarmed by my noisy progress through the dry autumn woods, Little Red flattened himself against his tree, staying put just long enough for me to snap one picture with my point-and-shoot camera's digital zoom. Though the much-enlarged photo is grainy, it's easy to see how well Little Red blends into his arboreal environment. The right-hand photo was shot at closer range with a DSLR and telephoto lens. Here Little Red is silhouetted against the sky, so it's much easier to spot him. You can also see the dark stripe that divides his white belly from his red back.
The upshot? Unless you're a patient observer with very sharp eyes, you're not likely to see Little Red unless he wants you to. But it's a pretty safe bet that you'll hear him. And the odds rise to a certainty in late winter. There's a whole lot of churring going on then, and it's not all invective. Some of it is the squirrel equivalent of pillow talk, an integral part of the ancient rituals of courtship and mating. Soon there'll be…
A New Generation
Of Lords of the Trees. True to type, though, red-squirrel relationships are short and stormy. Here's a picture of a couple enjoying a post-coital snack. I guess you could turn the familiar tag on its head and say they're together, yet alone. There's not much opportunity for romance in Little Red's life. But there's always time to grab a bite to eat.
Not long from now, when I walk the ridges overlooking The River, the leaves will be out, the trilliums will be brightening the forest floor, and a new generation of red squirrels will already be looking down on me from their aerial hideaways. Later still, if I'm lucky, I'll see them playing tag, wrestling, or grooming each other on a sunny branch. Youth is the only time in a red squirrel's life when he or she savors the joys of companionship. It won't last, of course. There's no room for rivals—or even close friends—in the life of a red squirrel. But don't feel sorry for Little Red. He wouldn't have it any other way.
In much of Canoe Country the red squirrel is the unchallenged Lord of the Trees. By and large he's a benign despot, but woe betide the paddler who attracts his wrath. Red squirrels don't take kindly to trespassers, and they're not about to suffer fools gladly. Nor do they feel any need to keep their opinions to themselves. So if you camp where these feisty spirits rule the roost, be sure to mind your manners. Failing that, you'd better keep your helmet on while you eat—and plan on having a bandanna handy to mop up any splashed tea!
Don't say I didn't warn you.
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