Just wanted to say hi

Red Squirrel

I had actually started editing photos for another subject this evening, and was just casually scrolling back through my photo folder when I stumbled across these, which I’d taken on the weekend. I can’t believe I’d forgotten about them already! Well. Naturally, I had to switch post topics. The original photos will be for tomorrow, instead.

This guy was a bit of a surprise. I’d given the animals their dinner, and once they’re done eating they have a routine of liking to go out onto the screened-in porch to check out the happenings out there. Merlin seemed a little more eager than usual to go out, but I thought nothing of it. I opened the door for him, and he trotted out briskly, followed quickly by Oliver and Charlie, and then as I continued to hold the door open, Raven darted out, too. Just as I was wondering about Raven’s interest in the porch (she normally shows no interest – why go out there, when she could go out the front door and be able to roam the whole yard?) I heard a squeaking coming from the far corner. I stepped outside just in time to see a Red Squirrel dash up the screening to the thin ledge just above it that the decorative framing creates.

Red Squirrel

Goodness knows how he got in. Or why. More than likely he somehow discovered that we store our birdseed on the porch, and just recently we’d had the lid off the container for a stretch. The only way I can conceive of him getting in at it, though, is there’s a small gap in the screening at one end where it’s worked its way loose from the frame. He must have pushed his way through that. Unless there’s a hole in the floor I don’t know about.

The cats went straight into stalking mode, and I had a bit of a struggle getting them rounded up and back inside. Then I propped open the door leading outside, and went back in to finish preparing the humans’ dinner. Half an hour later he still hadn’t left, and I finally had to herd him outside. He jumped from the top of the door and landed hard on the cement walkway. He scampered off alright, so I hope he didn’t hurt himself.

Red Squirrel

It’s a little funny that we even have Red Squirrels around the house. During the day Raven is free to patrol outside, and generally speaking she does a good job keeping all the little varmints (her word, not mine) at bay. The Red Squirrels, though – they’re bold. I regularly see one scampering along the outside of the shed (actually the original farmhouse, so it’s a little one-and-a-half-storey building), and I have a suspicion it might have a nest inside; they will occasionally opportunistically nest in human structures. There are cracks in the chinking where it can slip through, and, for whatever reason, a fair bit of foam padding stored in the upper level. Would make a great place for a nest, especially considering how conveniently close it is to the birdfeeder. And no durn dog is gonna persuade it otherwise.

In a more natural setting Red Squirrels will build their nests out of grass in the branches of a spruce tree (which we also have plenty of around the house), but are not opposed to using cavities or even excavating out large knots of witch’s broom. A typical territory is only about 50 m (164 ft) wide, providing there is sufficient food available, and a Red Squirrel may have multiple nests within the territory that it will switch between when it’s feeling like a change of scenery.

Red Squirrel

Hopefully since he had a bit of a scare with the animals he doesn’t try to sneak inside again. Not that I mind having him in for a visit, or even having him help himself to the seed. But I can’t guarantee that one of these times when I unsuspectingly open the door to let the cats out he doesn’t get pounced on. Should see about fixing that screen…

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The February freeze

Cold.

It was minus frigid today. The thermometer showed a high of -8 oC (18 oF) in the afternoon, and a brisk wind dropped it to the teens. Actually, that’s not terribly cold; yesterday it was -17 oC (0 oF), with a wind chill of -29 oC (-20 oF). I had the pleasure of walking home from the subway in that, and the bits of my face that were exposed, my cheekbones and the bridge of my nose, were aching by the time I got inside. The ten minute walk probably only took me seven because I was hurrying so much! The good news was that my new down jacket performed fabulously in its first serious field test. Average temperatures for this time of year run about -1 oC according to weather.ca, so we’re in a bit of a cold snap.

Juncos surviving the freezing temps

Today, back out in the country at my parents’, I couldn’t help but think of all the little critters who didn’t have the ability to hide indoors beside the wood stove. Those juncos looked a little cold out there. They turned down my offer to come in, though. A lot of animals suffer through conditions that would freeze us solid quickly. All those poor male Emperor Penguins incubating their eggs in the Antarctic winter (seen March of the Penguins?) comes to mind. More locally, the chickadees and sparrows in the backyard often make it through long stretches of sub-freezing temperatures and deep snow.

Feather

One of the keys to their survival is their full-body down jackets (or, in the case of mammals, fur coats) that keep them well-insulated. I reflected, as I was hurrying down the street yesterday, that if I had a down jacket for my legs and face I’d be in pretty good shape, since my torso was quite comfy. Part of that was the fact that I was being quite active and producing a lot of heat. This is also a key for birds; they keep relatively active during the day, and the heat they produce then gets trapped under the layers of down. On the above feather, the fluffy bit at the bottom creates many tiny air pockets that trap warm air against the body (this is the bit they stuff in your down jacket or duvet, though less expensive ones include the whole feather), while the smooth upper part streamlines the bird’s body to optimize aerodynamics. Mammals have a similar system of hairs that creates the same effect. Both birds and mammals have the ability, through itty-bitty muscles at the base of the feather/hair, to raise the insulative layer to create a wider air pocket and trap more heat when it’s colder (this is what goosebumps are… we don’t have enough hair for it to do much, though).

Junco with cold feet

But what about those tiny bare feet? Standing on the snow in the winter it would be hard to keep any warmth in them at all. And think of the ducks swimming on the near-freezing water. Well, as the junco above is demonstrating, often birds will tuck one foot up into their breast feathers if they’re resting (I’ve even seen some birds continue to forage for a time, hopping on one foot, while the other’s tucked up). Ducks, gulls and other waterbirds do this frequently, landbirds are less often observed doing it (mostly because they don’t loaf as much as gulls do!).

In addition to that, they’ve evolved an ingenious circulatory system to their legs, called countercurrent circulation. The arteries in their legs line up right next to the veins, so that the blood being pumped down into the legs through the arteries transfers its heat to the blood coming back up from the feet in the veins. This cools the blood down before reaching the feet to minimize heat loss to the environment, and warms it back up before it reenters the body. There’s actually very little tissue in a bird’s foot, it’s mostly tendons, so it doesn’t have the same heat requirements that muscle or organs do (in fact, it can approach freezing with no serious consequences). Mammals have a similar system in their legs, although they have more muscle tissue, so also use a layer of fur for insulation.

Look who's out!

Speaking of mammals… look who was out today! I have seen the Red Squirrel more this winter than I can recall in previous years. I have a feeling it’s in part because he’s set up shop in the attic of the house, I think in the area over the room with the wood stove. Judging by the size of the icicles hanging off the eaves there, the attic is probably pretty warm, and I imagine he doesn’t have to work too hard to conserve heat. Plus, with the feeders right there and handy for him, once his cache ran low he didn’t have to go too far for more food. I may have seen more of him this winter than the Gray Squirrels – unusual.

“Oh my GOSH it’s cold!”

Oh my GOSH it's cold!

Out for a bite to eat

RedSquirrel1

Someone else the recent warm spell brought out is the Red Squirrel that lives at my parents’. They’re rarely seen in the winter, and they tend to be grouped into the “hibernators” category. In fact, there are very few true hibernators, with ground squirrels and bats being the primary groups to do so in North America. Even bears aren’t true hibernators, with only slightly depressed body temperatures and awareness (compare some ground squirrels whose body temperatures may drop to below 0 degrees Celsius!)

Despite what I thought while growing up, Red Squirrels don’t hibernate in the winter either. Instead, they build caches of food near their nest during the fall, which they use, in combination with stored body fat, to get through the winter. They spend most of the winter within their nest, minimizing their amount of activity, and therefore required energy. Because their caches are usually quite close to their nest, they don’t have to stray far, or be out for long, and are not seen often as a result.

RedSquirrel2

So I was delighted to notice that the warm spell had encouraged the resident Red Squirrel to venture out to the feeders to stock up the cache. He (or she) was incredibly quick, dashing from the roof down the tree to the driveway, grabbing a few seeds and perhaps a chunk of bread (my mom throws out the end slices as a treat for the crows), and then turning tail and dashing back up the tree with barely a hesitation. Most of the photos I got of him were of his rear end as he paused to gather some food.

I think he may have been nesting in my parents’ attic, or alternatively in the spruce trees that line the back of the house (the branches of which are a squirrel’s jump away from the edge of the roof). I could tell when he was coming back to the tree to scurry down to the driveway because of the pitter-patter of little feet across the roof above. Red Squirrels usually maintain several nests within their territory (which may be up to 50m in diameter), but tend to favour White Spruce as the nest tree. Spruce seeds make up more than half of the average Red Squirrel’s diet.

RedSquirrel3

I find Red Squirrels to be especially wary. When walking in the woods, they don’t hesitate to dash up a tree and sit on a branch scolding you, even before chipmunks or Gray Squirrels that might also be in the area. In the case of this guy, I had to either be very still at the window (which meant standing with my camera posed for the shot), or stand back from the window. At the slightest movement he would dash halfway back up the tree, where he would pause and investigate the threat (me) for a moment or two. Either that, or take back off straight up the tree if he’d already gathered up some food.

More often than not, this was the shot I got!

RedSquirrel4