Going nuts about red squirrels
Perched high in a tree, this little guy is having a hickory nut snack in early fall. (Cori Brown photo)

The air snaps, leaves twirl like ballerinas in the wind, and the squirrels are busy filling up their larders for the coming winter.

Did you know that grey squirrels only recover 25 to 40 percent of the nuts they stash away? That's an astonishingly low rate if you ask me. On the other hand, they are great gardeners, planting everything from sunflower seeds to walnuts in our backyard. Who needs humans to plant trees when you've got grey squirrels? The trouble is, they don't bother to ask me where to plant them.


Come spring, there will be a hodgepodge of everything scattered in our bushes. The walnuts are especially irksome because they grow fast and are hard to get out. The squirrels carry them long distances from the back 40 just to bury them in the hydrangeas in the front yard.

I swear they are doing this on purpose just to irritate me. The walnuts seem to sprout overnight and before you know it, they're three feet tall and sticking out like sore thumbs.

Of course, grey squirrels bring out ambivalent feelings in a lot of people. If you feed birds, they are at the top of the most wanted list by the FBSI (Federal Bureau of Squirrel Investigations) whose motto is "guilty until proven innocent."

On the other hand, if you are bored and have time on your hands, you can always construct elaborate obstacle courses to keep the rascals from your black gold (aka sunflower seeds in bird feeder parlance).

I have to admit though, I have a soft spot for red squirrels. If you have conifers like pines and spruces, there's a chance you may have them. Cone seeds are some of their favorite foods though they eat a variety of other things including nuts, berries, tree buds and even bird eggs. In fact, they cut down green cones to make sure the seeds are still in them.

A red squirrel still wearing its ear tufts in early spring.
A red squirrel still wearing its ear tufts in early spring. (Cori Brown photo)

They are about half the size (12 inches including the tail) of their cousins the grey squirrels. In the summer they sport svelte reddish brown fur, linen white or cream bellies outlined with black stripes, and white eye rings. Come winter time, the black lines fade and little ear tufts appear. They are the epitome of cuteness no matter what the season. Their ho-hum, dime-a-dozen cousins don’t stand a chance in the adorability department.

Over the years I've come to think of them as family. Lil' Red is the matriarch (I've given some of them names). She's been around for several years and obviously has lots of street smarts to be surviving this long. The average life span for a red squirrel is only 3-7 years though some can live to 10 years. Flame and Fire are some of her children though at times it's hard for me to tell them apart (one is usually redder than the other). Believe it or not, red squirrel moms sometimes create little dynasties by giving part of their territory to their children to perpetuate the bloodlines. That's a pretty generous gift considering that many animal moms force their children to move out and find their own living space.

I love seeing them around the house but my favorite place to watch them is in our pine grove. They put Olympic champion Simone Biles to shame with their acrobatic skills in the trees. Because it is so dark in these woods, my best chance to spot them is when they start to sound the alarm to my invading presence. They have a lot to say to me as a potential predator and I don’t think any of it is nice!

I can't blame them for their reaction. Like many other rodents, they are at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to apex predators like hawks, owls, foxes, raccoons, and feral cats. What helps them is their lightning speed and athletic jumps. In short bursts of speed, they can reach 14 miles per hour. Like trapeze artists, they can jump up to 8 feet from branch to branch.

They need all these skills and more if they want to survive.

All that speed and jumping around makes it challenging to keep track of them in the woods, let alone get photos. On very rare occasions, they sit still long enough for me to get some shots of them in their native habitat as opposed to foraging around bird feeders. It is an incredibly rewarding feeling to capture their beauty and intensity on their own terms.

Do you have red squirrels in your backyard? Do you love these little dynamos as much as I do? If you do, write and tell me why at