Squirrel Wars

Last autumn, our granddaughter Eva, who was staying with us for several months, started complaining about the noise in the attic above her bedroom.

The squirrel cage in our attic (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

The squirrel cage in our attic (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

At first, I dismissed it as the usual small animal noises on the roof or even in the attic. My bedroom was next to hers and I wasn’t hearing anything out of the ordinary. After all, Eva had lived in town homes all her 22 years and wasn’t used to country life in an old (1871) clapboard farmhouse.

Back in 1971, after we bought our home, we told the contractor who was putting in a second floor bathroom that we were hearing animals in the walls rolling black walnuts.

The contractor, who had worked for the previous owners for decades said, “Oh, that’s the red squirrels. This place has always had them in the walls and attic. That’s why I built the squirrel cage in the attic.”

The squirrel cage is a six foot by 12 foot construction of stiff, fine wire mesh, hardware cloth in which we were instructed to store all items that squirrels might chew on or use as nesting material.

An American red squirrel eating a nut

An American red squirrel eating a nut (Photo by Connormah in Wikipedia, Creative Commons license)

For two years the squirrels continued their lives in our home until my husband Bruce’s parents moved into our guesthouse. I mentioned the squirrels to Pop, and one day, when I came home from shopping, Pop pointed proudly to my clothesline. Hanging by their tails were two dead red squirrels that he had shot. That deed ended the rollicking in our walls and attic, and, in fact, the red squirrel population on our mountain.

Now, more than four decades later, Eva’s complaints continued. Finally, in mid-December, I too began to hear running feet above my ceiling. I wondered if the red squirrel population had recovered but had seen no sign of any in the woods. Then, on a dreary December 29 morning I heard a commotion in the attic. I opened the attic door in my study and saw not a red but an eastern gray squirrel peering down at me. It had used the juniper tree outside my study window as a springboard to the eaves where it had chewed a hole into the attic.

Our caretaker, Troy, repaired the eaves, but he worried that the squirrel might be trapped in the attic, so he set a live animal trap where I had seen the squirrel and baited it with shelled peanuts. The following morning I heard scrabbling in my bedroom ceiling. Troy had caught a squirrel in the trap. Later he released it several miles from our home and re-set the trap.

A gray squirrel at a bird feeder

A gray squirrel at a bird feeder (Photo by Orest Ukrainsky in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

In the meantime, I battled gray squirrels at our three bird feeders hanging from our back porch and on the ground below where they gobbled up most of the birdseed I spread for the birds. Never in all the years we lived here had we had so many squirrels at our feeders. Our dozens of black walnut trees had had few black walnuts, and the acorn crop in our forest had been sparse for the second year in a row.

Meanwhile the squirrel wars continued in the attic. The peanuts were eaten night after night in the trap but no creature was caught. On the morning of January 13 I watched a squirrel climb the juniper tree, stopping occasionally to eat some snow. I alerted Bruce and he saw the squirrel leap on to the roof and come into the attic by way of a new hole it had chewed near the old, patched one.

Troy climbed the ladder to patch the new hole and carefully examined the eaves around the house for new holes but found none. Later, he returned with a trail camera tied to a heavy paint can that he put near the live animal trap. He baited the trap with a plastic cylinder peppered with small holes and filled with shelled peanuts.

At 2:00 a.m. I heard a squirrel run across my bedroom ceiling. The trap was not sprung and the cylinder was gone. I began to think we had Einstein squirrels in residence.

Game cam image of a gray squirrel in an animal trap in our attic

Game cam image of a gray squirrel in an animal trap in our attic (Photo courtesy of Troy and Paula Scott)

That evening Troy came by to check his camera. It looked as if three gray squirrels, one flying squirrel, and a short-tailed shrew had figured out how to get into the trap, grab the capsule and/or previously the peanuts, and escape without springing the trap.

I wasn’t too concerned about the flying squirrel. Apparently, southern flying squirrels sometimes live in attics, “gain[ing] access through windows, crevices under eaves, and similar apertures to the attics of homes,” according to one researcher as quoted in Flying Squirrels: Gliders in the Dark by Nancy Wells-Gosling, p.112. Probably they are the creatures that I do sometimes hear in the attic or walls, but their sounds can’t be compared to the noise of gray squirrels.

A short-tailed shrew

A short-tailed shrew (Photo by Gilles Gonthier in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The short-tailed shrew, on the other hand, was a puzzle. They do eat plant food, including corn and beechnuts during the winter, and, judging by our attic shrew, shelled peanuts as well. Still these are burrowing animals not known to live in houses, although I once found one in a bucket in our basement.

The weather worsened with cold and snow, and we declared the attic war a stalemate. Troy’s last check of his trail cams showed only one flying squirrel left in the attic. Besides, it was dangerous for Troy to use the ladder, and we hoped his latest eave repair would deter any more destruction by the gray squirrels.

But the squirrel war outside continued. After an eight-inch snowstorm on January 19, followed by minus one degree Fahrenheit the next day, the birds and squirrels were desperate for food especially since ice-covered snow was as deep as a foot in the forest.

From two above zero on January 21, the temperature rose above freezing, and it rained for two days, and then the thermometer dropped to 22 degrees. Our feeders and the ground below was swamped by 15 bird species and at least seven hungry gray squirrels. They were joined in the dawn light by a large cottontail rabbit.

Feeder birds blanketing the snow

Feeder birds blanketing the snow (Photo by John in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

To give more ground-feeding birds a chance against the squirrels, I started throwing birdseed out on the frozen snow on the opposite side of the house near the veranda. This worked for a couple days until the squirrels caught on and managed to dominate both feeding areas. However, on the last day of January it was seven degrees below zero. Birds, especially the white-throated, song, and American tree sparrows and dark-eyed juncos, blanketed the ground below the back porch and on the veranda side, but the squirrels gave up earlier than usual.

The continual snow, rain, and freezing that characterized most of February brought more gray squirrels to the feeding areas. But most returned to their tree nests in the forest every evening. The two most aggressive ones stayed close to the food. One lived beneath our generator near the back porch and the other stayed in the juniper tree even when it was snowing hard. I assumed they were two of the original attic dwellers.

By February 23 we had 11 gray squirrels, and they began attacking our two tube feeders. One squirrel pulled out the plastic guards around the holes of a new red metal feeder I had received at Christmas and ate all the seeds. Never had I had to fight such determined and bold squirrels. Another climbed up our back porch storm door, trying to get inside late one morning while our son Dave was eating in the kitchen.

A relatively squirrel-proof bird feeder hangs on our back porch (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

A relatively squirrel-proof bird feeder hangs on our back porch (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

Finally, the squirrels defeated me, especially the three biggest, boldest pests that never quit for the day, and I removed the tube feeders, leaving only a much larger, relatively squirrel-proof feeder to feed the birds. Still, they mobbed the porch, and when I threw out pounds of mixed seeds for the birds, the squirrels ate most of it.

Our outdoor squirrel war continued even into mid-March, and I acknowledged utter defeat by the 11 squirrels that never left until the snow melted.

On the other hand, we never heard or saw another gray squirrel in the attic so you could say that our squirrel war of 2018-2019 was a draw.

 

Chickarees

red squirrel with nut

photo by Franco Folini (Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

When we moved into our 100-year-old, Pennsylvania farmhouse back in 1971, red squirrels lived in the attic. They ran over the attic floor and between the walls at all hours of the day and night. Tired of being awakened by their rambunctious noises, I asked the local contractor, who was doing some work on our house, about keeping out the squirrels.

“They’ve always lived there,” he said.

Clearly, he had no intention of doing anything about them.

Two years later, my in-laws sold their home in New Jersey and moved here to live in our guesthouse during the warmer months. One morning I complained to my father-in-law about the squirrels.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll take care of them.”

I thought he planned to get a live trap for them. But one day, when I returned from shopping, two dead red squirrels were pinned to my clothesline by their tails. Pop was so proud he hadn’t lost his prowess as a small game hunter that I hadn’t the heart to object. I also couldn’t believe only two red squirrels had caused the commotion in the attic.

Having moved from Maine, where we had lived in the country for five years and hiked in our mixed conifer woods filled with scolding red squirrels, I had no idea that central Pennsylvania had marginal habitat for them. But over our 41 years here, after the two attic squirrels were eliminated, I had had only a couple other brief sightings of a red squirrel.

Then, last October 16, our caretaker wife, Paula Scott, and our son Dave’s English girlfriend, Rachel Rawlins, sat in a camouflage tent blind at the edge of a small patch of woods between our overgrown garden site, and the powerline right-of-way. Paula was showing Rachel how she hunted for deer during archery season.

They never did see any deer, but Rachel came back excited about the red squirrel they had watched.

“Red squirrel,” I asked. “Are you sure?”

American red squirrel eating a nut

photo by Connormah (Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

They described the red squirrel perfectly. It was half the size of a gray squirrel and had a dark red head, back and tail, white underside, and white eye ring. Also known as a “chickaree,” “pine squirrel,” “fairy diddle,” “chatterbox,” “boomer,” “rusty squirrel,” “barking squirrel,” or “Bang’s red squirrel,” its scientific name is Tamiasciurus, meaning “steward,” hudsonicus, for Hudson Bay, the site where its type specimen was found.

“Pine squirrel” refers to its preferred habitat—boreal coniferous forest with an interlocking canopy that provides protection for tree nests as well as its preferred food of conifer seeds and fungi, which can be preserved in the cool, moist environment. “Rusty squirrel” and “Bang’s red squirrel” describes its color, but all the other names refer to its repertoire of calls, specifically the alarm call “chirp” when predators are near and the threat call “rattle” in defense of their territory. With the “rattle” they may use a screech call or growl, and when approaching a female that may growl at them, a male will emit a buzz call.

But the red squirrel the women watched had been silent. And those few I had seen over the years also had been quiet. That’s because, when there are only one or two of them in widely spaced territories, they have no need to defend their turf.

Needless to say, I was sorry not to have been in the blind and seen the red squirrel. Eight days later, though, on a lovely October morning, I walked down First Field and paused to watch a white-crowned sparrow sitting on a weed head near the small patch of “red squirrel” woods.

That’s when I noticed a movement near Paula’s blind. I remained still, and the red squirrel climbed to a low tree branch and sat there while I watched it for several minutes before it dashed down the tree trunk and disappeared.

My next and, as it turned out, my last sighting of the red squirrel was on a warm December 4. Walking past the “red squirrel” woods, I noticed something atop an uprooted tree mound. It was the red squirrel, sitting up, its little paws folded across its chest. Whether it was worried about me or the gray squirrel running from First Field into the woods, it remained still and silent. Finally, I continued on my walk.

It was 13-year-old Carl Engstrom, who came up to participate in our Christmas Bird Count on December 16, 2012, who was the last person to see the red squirrel. He looked out our bow window and glimpsed the squirrel down the back slope. I was making lunch in the kitchen, and by the time I ran to the window, it was gone.

Unfortunately, a muscle tear kept me inside for most of the winter and while I watched our feeder area that was mobbed with gray squirrels from far and near because of a mast failure, I never saw the red squirrel there, although Carl’s mother, Dr. Carolyn Mahan, a squirrel expert at Penn State/Altoona, says that red squirrels rarely use bird feeders. They also eat such a wide variety of food that she doubts that it starved. In fact, she thinks it may have been attracted by black walnut trees at the edge of the grove, which had produced nuts.

American red squirrel in winter with peanut

photo by Gilles Gonthier (Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

Red squirrels are opportunistic creatures, and even though they may prefer the food in boreal coniferous forests, they will eat acorns, beechnuts, hickory nuts, hemlock cones, tulip and sycamore seeds, buds of maple and elm trees, sumac fruits, fungi, insects, and an occasional nestling or clutch of birds’ eggs, all of which we have somewhere on our mountain except for the sycamores.

They also “tap” sugar maple trees in late winter for their sap by biting into the xylem of the trees and coming back to those taps after the sap has dried, when the sap has gone from two percent sugar to 55 percent, and licking the maple sugar.

They store whatever food they collect in late summer and autumn in middens or caches that may be in a hollow tree or burrow. Occasionally, they scatter hoard and sometimes they bury food in wet places where it may stay fresh for several years. Fungi are either dried in trees or in middens along with nuts, hawthorn and sumac fruits.

I never did find a midden in the couple hollow trees on the ground, although in a study Mahan and Richard Yahner did nearby back in the early 1990s, they found that red squirrels used burrows on nine occasions. They hypothesized that if the area had a high percentage of herbaceous vegetation which concealed burrow systems, those systems could serve as places of refuge or nesting sites for red squirrels in marginal habitat where the interlocking canopy of trees for safe leaf nesting doesn’t exist. Certainly, I saw no sign of leaf nests in the “red squirrel” woods.

Whether it starved or was killed by a predator, we’ll never know. But most of the long list of predators that eat red squirrels—fishers, bobcats, large hawks and owls, coyotes, crows, weasels, martens, gray and red foxes—live on our mountain.

Where it came from is another mystery. But Mahan suggests it could have dispersed a distance from its birthplace using our wide corridor of mountaintop forest.

mother red squirrel with two of her young

mother squirrel with two of her young by Gilles Gonthier (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Red squirrels come into heat for one day in late winter and again, in early summer. Only then does the female allow males to enter her territory, which she defends year round, to mate. She may mate with as many as four to 16 males in that day after mating chases. She then settles into one of several nests, in her half to three-acre territory. Made of grasses, mosses, shredded bark and leaves, she may construct it in a deserted woodpecker hole or natural tree cavity in hickories or oaks, a rock pile, hollow fallen tree, or burrow.

After 35 days, she bears three to seven pink and hairless young. Their ears open at 18 days and their eyes at 21-35 days. In 40 days their pelages are fully developed. When they are six to eight weeks old, she weans them.

As they grow, the litter mates chase and mock fight. A few weeks after weaning they are on their own and in search of their own territory. Even when, in 15 percent of litters, a mother gives up a portion or all of her territory to her young, a process known as “bequeathal,” only 22 percent of all young red squirrels survive to breed at one year of age.

I assume our red squirrel had been born in August and had recently dispersed. Or perhaps, it was an April birth. In any case, it did not survive to start a family of its own. After so many years without red squirrels, I was pleased to see one nearby. But not, thankfully, in our attic!

American red squirrel swimming

swimming red squirrel by Lindsay Trostle (Wikimedia/Creative Commons)