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 RED SQUIRREL
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
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
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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Update: June 2012