Written By Joshua VanBrakle.

Posted on November 18th, 2015.

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The sound keeps going, and I realize it’s coming from a white pine tree in front of me. I look up, and as I do the chirp suddenly accelerates into a sharp, staccato burst. It’s like no bird call I’ve ever heard.

I’m on a slow quest to learn more birds and bird calls, so lately when I walk in the woods, I keep my ears open for which species might be around. On a hike in late fall, I’m in some deep, old pine and hemlock woods when I hear a loud, incessant chirping. I pause and look around, hoping to spot the bird making it.

The sound keeps going, and I realize it’s coming from a white pine tree in front of me. I look up, and as I do the chirp suddenly accelerates into a sharp, staccato burst. It’s like no bird call I’ve ever heard.

And that’s because on closer inspection, I see that the animal making this call isn’t a bird at all. It’s a red squirrel.

Red squirrels are small. Ten inches long and weighing around 6 ounces (less than half a pound), they’re one of the smallest tree squirrels in North America.

But don’t let their lightweight status fool you. Red squirrels are aggressive critters. They’ll bark and chirp at any threat that enters their territory, and they’ve been known to chase away creatures many times their size including the larger gray squirrels, blue jays, rabbits, and crows.

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In a rare moment of inactivity, the resident red squirrel sat still long enough to let me take his photograph.

It’s possible this red squirrel is shouting at me, but I don’t think so. He keeps moving even as he yells, and there’s scrabbling elsewhere in the tree. Another look reveals that there are actually two red squirrels. One – a newcomer – has climbed the white pine, and the resident squirrel is not happy about it.

As I watch, the resident chases the invader down the tree headfirst, almost faster than the eye can track. When the invader hits the ground, the resident squirrel continues the chase, forcing it away from the pine tree. Just for good measure, the red squirrel also barks and scares off a pair of chipmunks who happen to be foraging nearby.

With his interlopers scattered, the victorious resident red squirrel returns to his tree. The whole spectacle has taken less than a minute.

For a long while, I look at the white pine and its passionate defender. His aggressive style surprises me. He’s a prey species, and all this commotion surely alerted any nearby predators. Why would he give himself away like that?

As I think more about it though, I realize this squirrel is far less concerned with predators than he is with starvation. We’re coming into winter, and red squirrels don’t hibernate. They rely on stored food to survive the cold months. And unlike gray squirrels, which spread out their winter caches, red squirrels put everything in one stockpile, often in a tree cavity. The pine this squirrel defended so vigorously is almost certainly where his winter storage is. Had he lost the tree to an invader, he likely wouldn’t survive the coming winter months.

Besides, the risk of predator attack is small. Because reds stick to one stockpile, they have a small territory and know it well. This red squirrel knows exactly where he needs to go if he needs to find safety in a hurry. So bring on the hawks and the foxes; this speedy sentry will be long gone before they come within striking range.

If you’re curious how the red squirrel sounds when it’s defending its territory, check out this video of one protecting its nest.

 


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