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Red squirrels in Autumn

By Taylor Wildlife, Oct 16 2020 10:00AM

It's that time of year again. Those of you who are fortunate enough to see red squirrels regularly will have noticed a major increase in activity over the last few months. The second litter of young squirrels, or kits, of the year will have become strong and bold enough to go foraging for themselves, conveniently timed with the arrival and ripening of conifer cones. For the squirrels it's a race against time to put on as much fat as they can for the long winter ahead and to bury as much as possible, so that when times get hard they have enough food through the colder months. Unlike some other squirrel species, red squirrels do not hibernate; instead they rely on food stores that they have not only buried in the ground, but also stashed in rocks and in holes in trees.

A squirrels' nest is called a drey. Despite red squirrels being solitary for most of the year, during the winter they will sometimes share a drey so they can huddle together to keep warm. There is though a strick hierarchy based on age and dominance.

Red squirrels strip conifer cones to get to the seeds inside. Sometimes you will find the remnants of the cones in piles around the base of the tree or on tree stumps and large logs on the forest floor. Keep an eye out for this next time you're out and about! Red squirrels are also extremely partial to hazelnuts, beechnuts, and chestnuts. They are also known to eat some fungi, berries and young shoots, and on occasion have been observed displaying omnivorous behaviour, eating eggs as well as nestlings.

So how do squirrels find their nuts? This is an age old question that no one is quite sure of the answer to, but there are a few theories. One is that squirrels' saliva has a special scent that is strong enough to be smell several weeks later, even through a layer of snow. There is also the theory that they use landmarks, choosing a specific place that is easy to remember. Another theory is that the smell of the ripe nut itself is strong enough to give away its location. I personally think it's probably elements of all three.

In areas where there are large numbers of squrrels, nut thievery is commonplace, mainly amongst grey squirrels. If you take the time to watch, this can be observed at this time of year in most urban parks with a high grey squirrel population.

At this time of year red squirrels moult, and grow a much thicker double coat to keep them warm. This is what gives them a much more bushy appearance. As part of this coat they also grow the characteristic tufts on the tops of their ears, as well as getting a much fuller and darker coloured tail.

This photo shows some of the acrobatics needed to get to the cones. This squirrel is still in its summer coat but you can see by its slightly patchy appearance where it is starting to moult.

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