What Is That … Squirrel Eating?

0
Waddells

This article continues with the theme of gastronomic choices by the wildlife at our cottage, but this one focusses on what we see our squirrels eating.  We regularly see three types of squirrels that are active during daylight hours around White Lake:  the eastern chipmunk (referred to by experts as a ground-dwelling squirrel); the red squirrel (a small, but feisty, tree squirrel); and the eastern grey squirrel (a tree squirrel).

All three of these beasties are rodents which includes members of the porcupine (Erthizontidae), mouse (Zapodidae & Muridae), beaver (Castoridae) and squirrel (Sciuridae) families.  The best known feature of rodents is their upper and lower incisors (teeth) which continue to grow through the life of the animal.  This continuous growth requires rodents to gnaw continuously to keep their teeth from growing too long and to keep the cutting edges razor sharp.  Not surprisingly, most of the time when we observe squirrels at the cottage, they are eating, gathering or caching food.

We begin with the smallest of these beasties, the eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) which grows up to 30 centimeters in length (tail included).  Chipmunks are well known for scampering around on the ground foraging for and cramming their cheek pouches full of non-perishable food and then heading off to their burrows to store it for later use.  Our references indicate their favourite non-perishable foods include berries, nuts, seeds and mushrooms and note that perishable foods such as slugs, insects and snails are usually eaten as soon as they are caught; chipmunks will even feed on carrion when it is available.  A friend recently showed us a great picture of a cuddly little chipmunk munching away on a Pelecinid wasp.  Pictured below is one of our numerous cottage chipmunks removing the husk from an acorn that has fallen to the ground prior to hauling it off for storage, but they can be observed climbing shrubs and trees to harvest berries and nuts.

Next in size is the red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) which can grow to a length of 35 centimeters (including its tail).  Since red squirrels do not hibernate, they spend most of their waking hours during the warm weather collecting and storing massive amounts of food in winter caches and defending these caches from other squirrels.  We hear their chattering and observe their non-stop movements across the yard, up and down trees and chasing other squirrels all season long, throughout the day, at the cottage.  Our sources indicate the vast majority of their diet is seeds they remove from the cones of coniferous trees but when these seeds are not available, they turn to flowers, berries, mushrooms, small insects and small birds and mice.   The two extension ladders we hang underneath the east end of our cottage porch are used effectively by red squirrels as drying racks for mushrooms they have collected, before storing in their winter food caches. The following picture shows a squirrel preparing a mushroom for drying; in this case it was placed on the branch of a spruce tree for drying.

We have also observed them, as shown in the following picture, harvesting food (probably insects caught in the stickiness but possibly the tree sap too) from sapwells created by yellow-bellied sapsuckers.

The largest of these three beasties is the eastern grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) which can grow as long as 50 centimeters (tail included).   They also remain active throughout the winter and store food in numerous caches for use over the winter.  Sources note they mainly feed on the nuts and seeds of oak and maple, as well as fungi, fruits and the sap in tree bark.  The following is a picture of a black variant of the eastern grey squirrel feeding on seeds it is removing from a pine cone.

The next picture is of a grey variant high up in the tree tops feeding on maple seeds.

Last is an iconic photograph of a grey variant feeding on an acorn that has fallen from an oak tree.

Two useful resources we relied on to prepare this article are Tamara Eder’s Mammals of Ontario and Peter Alden’s Peterson First Guides Mammals.