Friday, March 14, 2014

Squirrel Facts: The Eurasian Red Squirrel

Just as the eastern gray is the most familiar squirrel in much of North America, the Eurasian red squirrel is the most common squirrel species throughout most of Europe and northern Asia. Its range extends literally from the Atlantic to the Pacific, including Spain, France and Italy in southern Europe to Scandanavia, to Siberia, parts of China, Japan and Korea. Geographically, it is almost certainly the most widespread of any squirrel species in the world.

And one of the cutest, as well!
Throughout this range, the Eurasian red squirrel can be found in both coniferous and temperate broadleaf forests and woodlands. The prefered habitat is coniferous or mixed forest, where mature trees provide nesting sites and a sufficient diet of seeds and acorns. Other foods favored by the red squirrel include fungus, tree bark, sap wood, and occasionally, if other food is in short supply, birds' eggs or even nestlings. Food is stored for the winter by burying or hiding in nooks or cavities in trees. However, the Eurasian red squirrel is not as proficient as the eastern gray at caching and retrieving the supplies, and much of the stored food goes unfound.

The Eurasian red squirrel exhibits an unusal degree of variability in its appearance both geographically and by season. In general, the head and body is 7.5-9 inches in length, with the tail adding an additional 6-9 inches--a bit smaller than the eastern gray squirrel. The coat can range from very light red, like the squirrel above, to almost black. Throughout much of its range red squirrels of many different shades can be found coexisting within a fairly small area. The underside is generally white or cream in color. The coat changes twice a year, with, predictably, a thinner coat in summer and a thicker coat in winter. Perhaps the most distinguishing physical feature of this squirrel is the ear tufts, which are generally larger in winter.

Like most tree squirrels, the Eurasion red squirrel may nest either in a tree cavity--often an abandoned woodpecker hole--or in a drey made of sticks and leaves and placed in a fork high in a tree. Mostly solitary except when raising young, several red squirrels will nevertheless share a drey during cold winter weather to better keep warm. Mating takes place in late winter, and often again in summer. Litters usually contain 3 or 4 young, which are cared for by the mother until about 8-10 weeks old.

The Eurasian red squirrel is not considered threatened over most of its range. However, in a few areas their numbers have dwindled. These areas include England, Ireland, and Italy, where eastern gray squirrels have been introduced. While the gray squirrel has been villified in these areas, especially in the British Isles where culls of gray squirrels have been carried out in many areas, it is clear that habitat loss has also played a large role in the decline of the red squirrels. I have discussed my opinions about this issue elsewhere on this blog.

In many areas red squirrels are
obviously still quite common!
The Eurasian red squirrel, common in the Scandanavian countries, figures prominently in Norse mythology. The squirrel Ratatoskr (translated "drill tooth") is found in written compilations dating to the 13th century, running up and down the world tree Yggdrasil, carrying messages and insults between the eagle at the top and the serpent below.

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