Red Squirrels and French Cuisine
I am curious about red squirrels and their ability to dry, cache and eat mushrooms. While enjoying his/her meal, the squirrel in the previous photo dropped some mushroom bits onto the boardwalk where we were standing. I wonder if these were Red Pine mushrooms? This squirrel seemed keen to offer some helpful insight into squirrel-mushroom eating habits:
Red Squirrel Christmas
A few years ago, while walking with a school class through the pine plantation at the Guelph Lake Nature Centre, the children in my group noticed a coniferous tree that had been “decorated” with beige mushrooms. Since it was late autumn and the mushrooms were draped like ornaments over the branches or wedged in forks of the tree, the children decided (with some certainty) that this must be a red squirrel’s Christmas tree. I had not seen a tree covered in mushrooms before and was amazed at the discovery. We talked about our kitchen cupboards at home and how humans store food. The children connected with this little squirrel and how he/she was drying and storing his/her food as well. I have not since seen a tree decorated top to bottom with mushrooms. Does the quantity of mushrooms drying/cached on tree branches indicate how cold a winter will be?
Which mushrooms do red squirrels eat?
I have found evidence of red squirrels storing Dryad’s Saddle mushrooms and Mouse mushrooms in Guelph. The mouse mushroom can easily be found in the autumn growing in pine plantations – a convenient location for foraging red squirrels. I have noticed that mouse mushrooms grow in lines reaching out from the trunks of pine trees. Someone once mentionned to me that they grow above the pine tree’s roots. It is fascinating to be able to see the roots of the tree by looking at the growth of the mushrooms on the surface of the earth. In Algonquin Park, it seemed that the red squirrel was eating a red-coated/coloured mushroom. After speaking with Tim, the manager at the wildlife research centre, he talked about the edibility of a red-coloured lobster mushroom. I don’t know for sure if this is what the red squirrel was eating but the lobster mushroom is definitely interesting…
Lobster mushrooms are similar in colour to cooked lobster meat or lobster shells and can have a seafood-like aroma when cooking. This colouring is actually an example of a mold attacking a mushroom. Hypomyces lactifluorum attacks and parasitizes Lactarius piperatus or Russula brevipes and covers the entire fruit body with an orange skin. Lactarius piperatus has a peppery flavor that is improved by Hypomyces. Russula, which is very crumbly, becomes dense and less breakable. They are often found under hemlock trees from as early as July through to October. Lobsters mushrooms can be used for dyeing wool, some fabrics, or paper and will yield a cinnamon pink to red color with wool when ammonia is used as a mordant.*
*Lobster Mushroom, n.d., viewed October 15, 2014, http://mushroom-collecting.com/mushroomlobster.html
While reading a Blog called “Chattermarks“, I learned that red squirrels also store mushrooms like russulas and “orange delicious” lactarius on white spruce trees. The lactarius mushrooms are more commonly called “Red Pine” or “Milk Cap” mushrooms.
“The anchor point of the upper incisors leaves a small cut in the bark, the dot, while the slashing lower incisors create a longer cut, the dash. In this way, you can envision which way the animal turned its head to tap the tree.”
“Red squirrels often tap trees during the spring sap flow and sometimes during the fall. Squirrels bite into the cambium layer with their heads turned sideways. This action is similar to the way we bite into an apple, they anchor with the upper incisors and then cut upward or repeatedly slice with the lower incisors. Sap oozes from the cut bark. Squirrels then leave to attend to other business. They return sometime later to lick what remains after most of the water has evaporated, condensing vitamins and sugars for a better meal. According to one researcher, sugars are condensed from 2% to 55% through evaporation.”* (Sourced from: Mammal Tracks and Sign, page 589)
*Elbroch, M. 2003, Mammal Tracks and Sign, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA.
In comparison, Maple syrup is usually around 67% condensed sugar and vitamins.
Red Squirrel Claw Marks
*Note the five toes on each squirrel foot, as evidenced by claw marks. I wonder if this squirrel was climbing the birch tree to find a location to tap into the bark? Birches also produce a sweet sap in the spring. I learned that the soft, papery bark of white birch provides a fantastic tracker’s canvas to observe mammal tracks and sign.
Cone on the Cob
A red squirrel will frequent the base of a particular cone-bearing tree to eat, chewing scales off the core of a cone the way people eat corn-on-the-cob. First, it chews the scales off near the stem. As each scale falls away, a pair of seeds is exposed. Because each subsequent scale lies up the cone and a small turn along the spiral, the squirrel must twirl the cone as it eats. Mounds of discarded scales and naked cone-cores pile up wherever a red squirrel partakes of its pine-on-the-cob.* (Sourced from: Michael J. Caduto, Pine on the Cob article, 2011)
*Pine on the Cob, February 2011, viewed October 15, 2014, http://northernwoodlands.org/outside_story/article/pine-on-the-cob
*During the last tracking weekend, it was suggested that red squirrels eat cones differently (eat from the bottom) than chipmunks (eat from the top). Is this true? In Mammal Tracks and Sign, Mark Elbroch writes that chipmunks tend to leave more of the stub that secures the cone scale, making the sign on cone stems bumpier than on cones foraged by red squirrels. I have seen red squirrels harvesting cones, nipping the branches that contain the cones and then climbing down the tree to collect his/her food. In this manner, it would be easier to eat the cone from the base. Do chipmunks also nip branches to collect cones? When looking for photos of this on-line, I could only see photos of chipmunks eating the outer tip of cones that had partially opened while still attached to the tree. However, if the cones were already on the ground (foraged by a red squirrel), couldn’t a chipmunk begin eating the cone from the base as well? Something to look for…
Red Squirrel Midden
A squirrel midden is basically the debris left by a squirrel after eating. You can sometimes find escaped seeds in this debris pile. When I am walking with a group I throw this pile of debris up into the air and watch for tiny helicopter seeds twirling slowly to the ground. Children enjoy this activity:)
The previous photo shows squirrel feeding sign on White pine seeds. The squirrel eats the seed at the end of the helicopter wing. I have heard that these seeds taste salty. I have not yet sampled them myself. Here is an interesting link about “How to eat pine trees”: http://tacticalintelligence.net/blog/how-to-eat-a-pine-tree.htm
Red Squirrel Cone Cache
While researching and observing the old growth trees in Guelph’s Woodlawn Memorial Park for a Nature Guelph outdoor program, Ann and I found an amazing red squirrel cache. This pile of cached Norway Spruce cones had spilled out of the tree. We were greatly amused by this little red squirrel’s industrious ability to store food for winter.
I learned that Norway spruce cones contain numerous high-energy seeds that store well. Accordingly, groves of this tree can provide food for 4 to 5 times the number of red squirrels found in other conifer forests.
Squirrel Feeding Sign
Red squirrels will nip branches for a couple of reasons. They nip branches to get the cones to fall to the ground. They also nip branches to find food on the branches themselves. This spruce branch was nipped off (see 45 degree angle chew on the end) so that the squirrel could eat the male pollen cones (lateral buds). Squirrels will also nip branches to eat the terminal bud as well.
Red Squirrel Tracks
Red Squirrel Trailing in Deep Snow
In the above photo, is the red squirrel travelling to the right or to the left? While tracking with Dan Gardoqui in Algonquin Park, he suggested finding three reasons to determine the direction of travel or the identity of an animal from a track. In the above photo, there is “snow spray” to the right of the track. The snow spray falls off of an animal as it is travelling in a forward motion. I have observed this for myself when walking in deep snow. As the squirrel bounds, the rear feet swing around and land just outside of the front feet. The rear feet register as drag marks behind and to the outside of the track. The front feet take off for the next leap and the front drag marks are closer to the middle of the trail. There is also a tail drag that is visible as the third line on the left-hand side of the photo. The direction of travel is to the right.
Which nut was opened by a red squirrel? Which nut was opened by a grey squirrel?
Walnuts have very hard shells that require much effort to open. Tiny white marks or indentations along the outside edge of a hole are signs from a small mammal’s lower incisors. These marks are called “chatter”. Red squirrels tend to obtain nut meat by opening a walnut from both sides, creating large, jagged holes. Grey squirrels tend to be able to cut into a walnut from any direction. The shell of the walnut is left in chunks or pieces.
The left walnut was opened by a grey squirrel and the right walnut was opened by a red squirrel.
Why does it seem that red squirrels are more efficient at getting to the nut meat in comparison to grey squirrels? Is this related to the size of the squirrel’s incisors?
Red Squirrel Scat
Red Squirrel Tree Marking
This photo shows a horizontal branch of a Balsam Fir. Squirrels will move up and down branches like this one and chew or smell the bark. They may pause to bite or rub their cheeks along the tree branch. This marking behaviour creates a bumpy or textured surface or even a visible stripe. Grey squirrels prefer to mark vertical trunks and red squirrels prefer to mark horizontal limbs. This marking behaviour is used as a form of communication between squirrels. Years and generations of squirrels may contribute to the “tree stripe”. Squirrels usually choose an obvious or a dominant tree to mark. Red squirrels prefer conifers.