A few weeks ago, Dan commented to me that he’d seen a (American) Red Squirrel sitting atop the nestbox we have in the garden by the house. It had been chewing at the entrance hole, and when he’d peeked in there was a fair amount of soft strips of cedar bark. I kept meaning to go back out to investigate, and Dan kept meaning to look into ousting the critter in the interest of saving the box for the birds, but neither of us ever got around to it.
This afternoon, before heading out for a walk with the two dogs, I did a loop about the garden to see how things were growing. As I approached the nestbox I could see a small, fuzzy nose sticking out of it, enjoying the sunshine. She didn’t move as I approached, and only withdrew slightly when I reached the base of the box. I could see her dark eye peering cautiously out at me from the darkness.
Curiosity piqued by the fact that she didn’t leave, I climbed onto the milk can still sitting below the box from last year. I lifted the lid slowly, not sure if she might turn around and jump out at me now that I was so close. But she didn’t move. I lowered the lid, turned my camera on and adjusted the settings, then lifted it again. Still she sat motionless, head turned slightly to glance over her shoulder at me. I snapped a photo, the camera held in the air in front of me since the nest box is just a shade too high for me to look through the viewfinder while aiming. Finally, as I opened the lid the rest of the way, she dashed out through the entrance hole, down the box to the pole, then jumped to the ground where she scurried to the nearby spruce to hide.
With her gone I felt safer leaning over to peer inside. All I could see was a mass of cedar, so I held the camera up directly over the open top to shoot straight down at what I couldn’t see. It wasn’t much help. Still, just a mass of cedar strips.
I was about to shrug and close the lid, figuring she was just using it as a sleeping chamber or perhaps was still building it, when I heard a few soft peeps coming from inside the box. Babies! Or I sure hoped it was babies, anyway.
We don’t seem to have a stepladder, so instead I retrieved the bar stool from the kitchen and set it up in the garden below the box. Standing on it I was just tall enough to peer over the side of the box to see the contents. I wasn’t sure whether squirrels, being mammals, would be put off by human scent (birds aren’t, but that’s because they have a lousy sense of smell), so I used a twig to manipulate the nesting material, opening up the narrow tunnel by pushing the cedar to the sides of the box (an effort that was only moderately successful as the bark strips seemed especially springy).
Down at the bottom I could see pink things wriggling. Again I heard a few peeps. Then one rolled over and there was the cutest, tiniest, most delicate little paw.
I tried taking a couple of photos from above the box, but getting the focus was difficult since I couldn’t look through the viewfinder. I tried half a dozen, putting the camera on a manual focus and moving it up and down above the box, but this was the clearest one I got. And you still couldn’t see much. It could simply be a pile of beach stones in there, for all you can tell.
Dan came around the corner then and asked what I was looking at, to which I enthusiastically replied, “She has babies!” I asked whether he thought she’d desert if I touched them. He offered his opinion, but suggested I ask Google, who always seems to know the answer. So I did. And was assured that a mother squirrel will not be put off by people-smell. (This probably makes sense, since the nestbox probably also smells a bit like people.)
Which meant that I could carefully lift one out for a photo without fear of repercussions. And, I’m sorry, after seeing that little pink foot, I just had to.
When I place the small, squirming body on my palm I just about melted from the cute factor. It was so tiny! With little bitty ears and little bitty toes and a little bitty tail. Its eyes were still firmly closed, and if it had teeth it didn’t recognize the need to use them. It paddled a bit with its paws (awwww!), pulling itself across my hand, but that was all.
Baby squirrels open their eyes at age 4 weeks, which makes this guy younger than that – not that that’s a surprise. One chart I found suggested that at the point where their pink skin starts to darken on the head and back they’re between 2 to 3 weeks. That might be about right, if it took the mother a few days to a week to build the nest.
Look at that face, those tiny ears! The wrinkles of skin at his neck! You can see the down starting to cover his head. He’s even starting to get whiskers, at his muzzle and below his eyes.
Baby Red Squirrels grow at a rate of nearly 2 grams (1/14 oz) per day (from a starting birth weight of 10 grams / 1/3 oz); at just past 40 days old, about six weeks, they’ll leave the nest with their mother. They stay with her for some time yet after that, even continuing to nurse for up to another month. They don’t reach adult size till four months; we’ll have baby squirrels to look forward to seeing.
Dan joked that we’ve been doing a great service for the local Red Squirrel population, helping them to increase their numbers. When we moved in, we were lucky if we even saw one on the property, and they never hung out by the house. Then we put out birdfeeders. Then the squirrels discovered the feeders.
Good thing they’re cute.