Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Mammals by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Mammals by  Anna Botsford Comstock


The Red Squirrel or Chickaree

Teacher's Story

Just a tawny glimmer, a dash of red and gray,

Was it a flitting shadow, or a sunbeam gone astray!

It glances up a tree trunk, and a pair of bright eyes glow

Where a little spy in ambush is measuring his foe.

I hear a mocking chuckle, then wrathful, he grows bold

And stays his pressing business to scold and scold and scold.

dropcap image E ought to yield admiring tribute to those animals which have been able to flourish in our midst despite man and his gun, this weapon being the most cowardly and unfair invention of the human mind. The only time that man has been a fair fighter, in combating his four-footed brethren, was when he fought them with a weapon which he wielded in his hand. There is nothing in animal comprehension which can take into account a projectile, and much less a shot from a gun; but though it does not understand, it experiences a deathly fear at the noise. It is pathetic to note the hush in a forest that follows the sound of a gun; every song, every voice, every movement is stilled and every little heart filled with nameless terror. How any man or boy can feel manly when, with this scientific instrument of death in his hands, he takes the life of a little squirrel, bird or rabbit, is beyond my comprehension. In pioneer days when it was a fight for existence, man against the wilderness, the matter was quite different; but now it seems to me that anyone who hunts what few wild creatures we have left, and which are in nowise injurious, is, whatever he may think of himself, no believer in fair play.

Within my own memory, the beautiful black squirrel was as common in our woods as was his red cousin; the shot-gun has exterminated this splendid species. Well may we rejoice that the red squirrel has, through its lesser size and greater cunning, escaped a like fate; and that pugnacious and companionable and shy, it lives in our midst and climbs our very roofs to sit there and scold us for coming within its range of vision. It has succeeded not only in living despite of man, but because of man, for it rifles our grain bins and corn cribs and waxes opulent by levying tribute upon our stores.

Thoreau describes most graphically the movements of this squirrel. He says: "All day long the red squirrels came and went. One would approach at first warily, warily, through the shrub-oaks, running over the snow crust by fits and starts and like a leaf blown by the wind, now a few paces this way, with wonderful speed and waste of energy, making inconceivable haste with his "trotters," as if it were for a wager, and now as many paces that way, but never getting on more than half a rod at a time; and then suddenly pausing with a ludicrous expression and a gratuitous somersault, as if all the eyes of the universe were fixed on him, * * * and then suddenly, before you could say Jack Robinson he would be in the top of a young pitch pine, winding up his clock, and chiding all imaginary spectators, soliloquizing and talking to all the universe at the same time."

It is surely one of the most comical of sights to see a squirrel stop running and take observations; he lifts himself on his haunches, and with body bent forward, presses his little paws against his breast as if to say, "Be still, oh my beating heart!" which is all pure affectation because he knows he can scurry away in perfect safety. He is likely to take refuge on the far side of a tree, peeping out from this side and that, and whisking back like a flash as he catches our eye; we might never know he was there except as Riley puts it, "he lets his own tail tell on him." When climbing up or down a tree, he goes head first and spreads his legs apart to clasp as much of the trunk as possible; meanwhile his sharp little claws cling securely to the bark. He can climb out on the smallest twigs quite as well, when he needs to do so, in passing from tree to tree or when gathering acorns.


Red Squirrel or Chickaree

A squirrel always establishes certain roads to and from his abiding place and almost invariably follows them. Such a path may be entirely in the treetops, with air bridges from a certain branch of one tree to a certain branch of another, or it may be partially on the ground between trees. I have made notes of these paths in the vicinity of my own home, and have noted that if a squirrel leaves them for exploring, he goes warily; while, when following them, he is quite reckless in his haste. When making a jump from tree to tree, he flattens himself as widely as possible and his tail is held somewhat curved, but on a level with the body, as if its wide brush helped to buoy him up and perhaps to steer him also.

During the winter the chickaree is quite dingy in color and is an inconspicuous object, especially when he "humps himself up" so that he resembles a knot on a limb; but with the coming of spring, he dons a brighter coat of tawny-red and along his sides, where the red meets the grayish white of the under side, there is a dark line which is very ornamental; and now his tail is a shower of ruddiness. As the season advances, the colors seem to fade; they are probably a part of his wooing costume. When dashing up a tree trunk, his color is never very striking but looks like the glimmer of sunlight; this has probably saved many of his kind from the gunner, whose eyes being at the front of his head, cannot compare in efficiency with those of the squirrel, which being large and full and alert, are placed at the sides of the head so as to see equally well in all directions.

The squirrel's legs are short because he is essentially a climber rather than a runner; the hips are very strong, which insures his power as a jumper, and his leaps are truly remarkable. A squirrel uses his front paws for hands in a most human way; with them he washes his face and holds his food up to his mouth while eating, and it is interesting to note the skill of his claws when used as fingers. The track he makes in the snow is quite characteristic. The tracks are paired and those of the large five-toed hind feet are always in front.


Squirrel Tracks

The squirrel has two pairs of gnawing teeth which are very long and strong, as in all rodents, and he needs to keep busy gnawing hard things with them, or they will grow so long that he cannot use them at all and will starve to death. He is very clever about opening nuts so as to get all the meats. He often opens a hickory nut with two holes which tap the places of the nut meats squarely; with walnuts or butternuts, which have much harder shells, he makes four small holes, one opposite each quarter of the kernel. He has no cheek-pouches like a chipmunk but he can carry corn and other grain. He often fills his mouth so full that his cheeks bulge out like those of a boy eating pop-corn; but anything as large as a nut he carries in his teeth. His food is far more varied than many suppose and he will eat almost anything eatable; he is a little pirate and enjoys stealing from others with keenest zest. In spring, he eats leaf buds and hunts our orchards for apple seeds. In winter, he feeds on nuts and cones; it is marvelous how he will take a cone apart, tearing off the scales and leaving them in a heap while searching for seeds; he is especially fond of the seeds of Norway spruce and hemlock. Of course, he is fond of nuts of all kinds and will cut the chestnut burs from the tree before they are ripe, so that he may get ahead of the other harvesters. He stores his food for winter in all sorts of odd places and often forgets where he puts it. We often find his winter stores untouched the next summer. He also likes birds' eggs and nestlings, and if it were not for the chastisement he gets from the parent robins, he would work much damage in this way.

The squirrel is likely to be a luxurious fellow and have a winter and a summer home. The former is in some hollow tree or other protected place; the summer home consists of a platform of twigs in some tree-top, often built upon an abandoned crow or hawk nest; but just how he uses these two homes, is as yet, a matter of guessing and is a good subject for young naturalists to investigate. During the winter, he does not remain at home except in coldest weather, when he lies cozily with his tail wrapped around him like a boa to keep him warm. He is too full of interest in the world to lie quietly long, but comes out, hunts up some of his stores, and finds life worth while despite the cold. One squirrel adopted a bird house in one of our trees, and he or his kin have lived there for years; in winter, he takes his share of the suet put on the trees for birds, and because of his greediness, we have been compelled to use picture wire for tying on the suet.

The young are born in a protected nest, usually in the hollow of a tree. There are four to six young in a litter and they appear in April. If necessary to move the young, the mother carries the squirrel baby clinging to her breast with its arms around her neck.

The squirrel has several ways of expressing his emotions; one is by various curves in his long beautiful, bushy tail. If the creatures of the wood had a stage, the squirrel would have to be their chief actor. Surprise, incredulousness, indignation, fear, anger and joy are all perfectly expressed by tail gestures and also by voice. As a vocalist he excels; he chatters with curiosity, "chips" with surprise, scolds by giving a gutteral trill, finishing with a falsetto squeal. He is the only singer I know who can carry two parts at a time. Notice him sometimes in the top of a hickory or chestnut tree when nuts are ripe, and you will hear him singing a duet all by himself, a high shrill chatter with a chuckling accompaniment. Long may he abide with us as an uninvited guest at our cribs! For, though he be a freebooter and conscienceless, yet our world would lack its highest example of incarnate grace and activity, if he were not in it.

Lesson LVII

The Red Squirrel or Chickaree

Leading Thought—The red squirrel by its agility and cleverness has lived on, despite its worst enemy—man. By form and color and activity it is fitted to elude the hunter.

Method—If a pet squirrel in a cage can be procured for observation at the school, the observations on the form and habits of the animal can be best studied thus; but a squirrel in a cage is an anomaly and it is far better to stimulate the pupils to observe the squirrels out of doors. Give the following questions, a few at a time, and ask the pupils to report the answers to the entire class. Much should be done with the supplementary reading, as there are many interesting squirrel stories illustrating its habits.


1. Where have you seen a squirrel? Does the squirrel trot along or leap when running on the ground? Does it run straight ahead or stop at intervals for observation? How does it look? How does it act when looking to see if the "coast is clear"?

2. When climbing a tree, does it go straight up, or move around the trunk? How does it hide itself behind a tree trunk and observe the passer-by? Describe how it manages to climb a tree. Does it go down the tree head first? Is it able to climb out on the smallest branches? Of what advantage is this to it?

3. Look closely and see if a squirrel follows the same route always when passing from one point to another. How does it pass from tree to tree? How does it act when preparing to jump? How does it hold its legs and tail when in the air during a jump from branch to branch?

4. Describe the colors of the red squirrel above and below. Is there a dark stripe along its side, if so, what color? How does the color of the squirrel protect it from its enemies? Is its color brighter in summer or in winter?

5. How are the squirrel's eyes placed? Do you think it can see behind as well as in front all the time? Are its eyes bright and alert, or soft and tender?

6. Are its legs long or short? Are its hind legs stronger and longer than the front legs? Why? Why does it not need long legs? Does its paws have claws? How does it use its paws when eating and in making its toilet?

7. Describe the squirrel's tail. Is it as long as the body? Is it used to express emotion? Of what use is it when the squirrel is jumping? Of what use is it in the winter in the nest?

8. What is the food of the squirrel during the autumn? Winter? Spring? Summer? Where does it store food for the winter? Does it steal food laid up by jays, chipmunks, mice or other squirrels? How does it carry nuts? Has it cheek-pouches like the chipmunk for carrying food? Does it stay in its nest all winter living on stored food like a chipmunk?

9. Where does the red squirrel make its winter home? Does it also have a summer home, if so, of what is it made and where built? In what sort of a nest are the young born and reared? At what time of the year are the young born? How does the mother squirrel carry her little ones if she wishes to move them?

10. How much of squirrel language can you understand? How does it express surprise, excitement, anger, or joy during the nut harvest? Note how many different sounds it makes and try to discover what they mean.

11. Describe or sketch the tracks made by the squirrel in the snow.

12. How does the squirrel get at the meats of the hickory nut and the walnut? How are its teeth arranged to gnaw holes in such hard substances as shells?

Supplementary Reading—Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers, John Burroughs; American Animals, Stone & Cram; Secrets of the Woods, Long; Familiar Life in Field and Forest, Mathews; Little Beasts of Field and Wood, Cram; Wild Neighbors, Ingersoll; Familiar Wild Animals, Lottridge.

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