Schandelmeier on outdoors: Red squirrels as pesky as they are cute

Daily News correspondentDecember 3, 2013 

Red squirrels are pesky little buggers. They are everywhere in Alaska, from the coast to the very edge of timberline.

Alaska also has flying squirrels, but they are nocturnal so are seldom seen. You can't miss red squirrels. Most often you see them racing down the side of your house with a mouthful of insulation. Cute, inquisitive, destructive and extremely successful in the Alaska environment are the traits that define this small squirrel.

Like most kids, I decided I wanted a clever little squirrel for a pet. I set a live trap, baited with peanut butter, in the woods behind our house. I soon had a red squirrel living in a nice cage I cobbled together with some two-by-fours and chicken wire. I don't remember giving him a name. If I did, it was probably: "What Was I Thinking?"

He soon became quite tame. I could let him out of the cage and he would sit on my shoulder and only occasionally bite me. He moved into one of our swallow houses and began to cart corn from the chicken feeder to fill it. A red squirrel trademark is food storage.

In the wild they stockpile spruce cones and various types of mushrooms for later use. Spruce cones are the staple diet of the red squirrel, but they eat almost anything. They can eat mushrooms that are poisonous to humans. Berries are utilized in the fall, though not stored. Summer finds them eating bird eggs and baby birds.

A biologist who was doing song-bird capture in the Tetlin Wildlife Refuge once told me they had to check their nets every hour or the squirrels would come and eat the captured birds. Red squirrels also eat baby hares. Adorable?

My pet squirrel finally got so obnoxious that my dad told me to take him off in the woods and get rid of him. I took "What Was I Thinking" a mile or so back in the woods and figured I had seen the last of him.

Not so. A couple of days later he was back. He brought a half-dozen of his kinfolk with him. The chicken feeder was no longer safe for the chickens, as only the toughest of roosters can face down a pack of aggressive squirrels.

There are a few predators that take squirrels. Goshawks are likely the most successful. Marten take a few, though not nearly as many as they are credited with. Foxes and coyotes take their share. Other meat eaters take them opportunistically, but no single predator targets red squirrels.

They are fast and smart with well-defined home ranges that they know very well. Escape routes and safe havens within their boundaries are well researched. Adult red squirrels have a good life expectancy in the wild once they get through the first year. They are one of the few animals that live as long in the wild as in captivity. Six years is a normal life span and instances of 10-year-old squirrels are documented.

Three or four young are born in the spring after a five-week gestation. The babies, called kits or kittens, are on their own in 70 days. Most find their own territories. A few lucky ones are bequeathed a section of their mother's territory, especially in the case of an older female.

Squirrels are usually very possessive of their home range. I'm not sure why my pet brought all of his friends with him when he returned, unless it was to show off. I got the live trap busy, caught them all and got my mom to drive the critters and me 10 miles down the road. I never saw them again, but I'd bet someone else did.

The next time one of these delightful, perky squirrels are on your bird feeder beguiling you with their charming antics, remember that they carry about 30 different brands of mites and lice. Also, they are perhaps living in your attic, chewing up insulation and electrical wires.

I did, however, really become attached to "What Was I Thinking." 

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time Yukon Quest champion.

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