Published February 25, 2010, 04:50 PM

Northland Nature: The intriguing behavior of gray and black squirrels

Apparently what is happening is that the squirrels are determining a hierarchy that will be important as they move into the spring mating season.

The longer days with plenty of sunlight and milder temperatures have slowed the activity at my bird feeders.

I still get about eight kinds of birds visiting each day, but those that come by seem to stay for a shorter time and the numbers are down from earlier days.

The goldfinch flocks that were composed of about 50 just a couple of weeks ago have now dropped to about 10. And some days only a few purple finches arrive. Perhaps a snowstorm or cold will bring them back.

Despite fewer birds, the squirrels still show up hungry each morning. Most anyone who feeds birds will also have these bushy-tailed mammals coming uninvited as well.

Many bird feeders consider squirrels as pests and use a variety of methods to get rid of them.

Whether it is the type of feeder, food or location, I find almost nothing works to move these arboreal rodents from the scene.

I have long given up on stopping them; I just put out more sunflower seeds to satisfy everyone.

Looking out on any of the mornings this month, I expect to see 10 to 15

squirrels.

By far the most common of our squirrels are the eastern gray squirrels, but they are not alone.

Frequently, small energetic red squirrels come by too. And nearly every night, we are visited by the nocturnal flying squirrels. Seen rarely too is the more orange-brown fox squirrels. Variations occur and not all grays look the same.

I have noticed in the last few years that among the ones with gray fur are those with a darker pelage: the black squirrels.

Black squirrels are just a different phase of a gray squirrel. Correctly known as melanism, this color is genetic and ranges within local populations from rare to common. (The white or albino condition is nearly always rare.)

As a recessive trait, melanistic squirrels will typically be outnumbered by the gray. It appears that about one-fourth to one-third of my yard’s squirrels are ebony. This amount may be increasing each year.

Regardless of their colors, things change in late February in the squirrel world. Up until now, they seemed to be interested only in getting free meals each day.

Now, as they dine, they often pounce towards each other. Not always to fight for a tasty morsel, these movements often take them up trees, away from the food. Apparently what is happening is that the squirrels are determining a hierarchy that will be important as they move into the spring mating season.

This pre-mating behavior of jockeying for position and rights to claim a mate will prepare them for the coming breeding time. With a gestation period of 44 days and their first births to take place in April, gray squirrel mating season is soon to be happening.

It is hard to believe that in a few weeks, they will go from the feeding sites and to their nests in nearby trees. As late winter unfolds into the coming spring, they will take on a life much different from what we see now. And it is hard to believe that the 15 squirrels I see in front of me now will disperse into the forests during warmer weather and I will see few in the seasons ahead.

Whether gray or black, squirrels in the yard are influenced by the longer days and are now going through some big changes.


Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books that are available now: “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Fascinating Fungi of the North Woods.”

Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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