Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Red Squirrel
Nature Bulletin No. 641-A   May 14, 1977
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

The friskiest, noisiest, sassiest, most inquisitive little animal we can think of is the Red Squirrel or Chickaree -- a name, coined in colonial New England, imitating its staccato chatter.

Smaller than a gray squirrel but larger than a chipmunk, it is readily distinguished from other tree-dwelling squirrels by its tail, which is flat and thinner, although bushier than a chipmunk's; by its nervous inquisitive behavior; and by its constant jabbering or furious scolding. Our common fox squirrel, usually miscalled a "red squirrel, " is much larger and entirely different.

The red squirrel is one of the most widely distributed mammals in North America. It ranges from the southern Appalachians to northeastern Quebec and throughout the forested regions of Canada and Alaska; thence south to Baja (Lower) California, south through the Rockies to southern Arizona and New Mexico, and south to Missouri and the Wisconsin Dells.

It is strictly a forest dweller. One kind, the Southern Red Squirrel, inhabits deciduous timber. Originally it was distributed through all of the vast forfeits east of the Mississippi and was common in Cook County. Fifty years ago there were still a few in the Indiana Dunes region.

There are about 20 kinds in three groups distinguished by radical differences in color. The Eastern, Southern and Little red squirrels -- the largest group -- are all clear white below and, separated by a conspicuous black line along the sides, are reddish brown or chestnut above. Those in the Pacific Coast group are bright orange below and reddish above but in one species the tail is mostly black. The Rocky Mountain group, called "pine squirrels, " are grayish white below and gray above.

Red squirrels usually den in a tree cavity, often a woodpecker hole, but sometimes in a hollow stump or even a burrow underground. Occasionally they build a bulky nest of twigs and leaves in a tree crotch and they often build such nests for summer use. A pair has one litter per year. The young, usually 4 or 5, are born in spring -- naked and blind -- and stay with their mother until nearly full-grown. Meanwhile their papa lives alone.

Except at mating time, red squirrels are very unsociable and quarrelsome. Each male jealously guards "his territory -- perhaps several acres -- against intruders. Normally he may keep up a cheerful chatter, or perhaps be silent for hours. But if a man or a bear, for example, comes near his cache of food stored for winter use he flies into a frenzy. His rattling barks are punctuated with spits and growls as he dashes this way and that, bouncing, jerking, and stamping his feet.

The red squirrel is almost omnivorous and eats whatever is available. Nuts and in coniferous forests, the seeds of pines, spruces, firs and hemlock form their principal food and are stored in great quantities for fall and winter use.

In spring they sever small branches on black birches and sugar maples to sip the sap that flows. They feed on the buds, tender twigs, flowers, catkins and seeds of many trees and shrubs. Berries, fruit, roots, and insect larvae and pupae are also eaten. They are very fond of mushrooms. More carnivorous than other squirrels, the Chickaree has gained a bad reputation because some habitually devour the eggs and young of nesting birds.

They have many enemies: several hawks, some owls, weasels, mink, foxes, wolves, the lynx, the bobcat or bay lynx and, in coniferous forests, the pine marten which pursues and captures them in trees.

With all his faults, the red squirrel is a cute character.

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