We have had a red squirrel gobbling up the sunflower seeds in our platform feeder for much of the winter so far. But it has been providing us with some great entertainment, so we just have to put out some extra sunflower seeds to make sure the birds are also well fed.
The red squirrel is generally regarded as a species of the northern coniferous forest. Here in North Dakota, however, it may be found in wooded areas associated with the Red River and its tributaries, Pembina Hills and Turtle Mountain, along the Mouse River, and along the Knife River. Elsewhere in the state the species distribution is uncertain or undocumented.
Like the more widely distributed fox and gray squirrels, red squirrels are active during the warmer days of the winter. So we have seen a lot of this furry creature this winter. During cold spells, however, they generally stay hold up in their nesting cavity or perhaps a leaf nest.
Where conifers are abundant the bulk of their diet is conifer seeds. But in our area of largely aspen forest the diet may consist of aspen buds and catkins, nuts and seeds of other deciduous trees such as oak, and of course the sunflower seeds.
Red squirrels are known to cache food for winter use. Several years ago I made a nesting cavity from a hollow aspen log with about a two-inch knot hole in it, hoping something would use it. I have observed several birds and mammals going in and out of it over the years, but no nesting to my knowledge. However, a couple years ago it was full to the brim with acorns, assumedly the winter stash of a red squirrel. By spring it was empty.
Red squirrels are territorial. Whether we have been seeing a male, female, or both, their breeding season will commence around February and March with 3-5 young born about a month later.
I have assumed we have been seeing the same squirrels in our yard for the past few years, but that is likely not the case. I have read that only around 25% survive their first year, and an 8-year-old red squirrel would be an very old squirrel. So perhaps we have observed a few generations of squirrels in our yard.
Many people that feed the birds view the squirrels, red or otherwise, as thieves. But they deserve a little help with North Dakota winters too. Plus, they can be quite entertaining. So give these high octane furballs a break this winter!