As my family prepares for a new baby, the backyard squirrels seem in a similar state of anticipation. Their aerial antics drive the dog to distraction, but I recognize them for what they are: amorous precursors to an expanded family.
For the eastern gray squirrel, or Sciurus carolinensis, early spring is a difficult time. Squirrels can’t digest cellulose, foraging instead for foods that are rich in fat, carbohydrates, and protein. Nuts buried the previous fall begin to sprout, forcing squirrels to rely on tree buds for sustenance. Despite the straits of their circumstances, these prolific and adaptable rodents will likely give birth to a litter of one to four kits in February or March, sometimes followed by another litter in June or July. Born hairless and with their eyes closed, the kits will remain in the nest for twelve weeks.
Gray squirrels build their spherical, leafy nests, known as dreys, in the forest canopy, high enough to provide protection from predators but not so high as to be blown free by the wind. The nests are lined with dried grass, feathers, moss, and thistledown. Mating squirrels sometimes share a drey during breeding season, and multiple squirrels will shelter together for warmth during the cold winter months. Some squirrels inhabit hollow tree trunks instead of dreys.
Gray squirrels boast a variety of vocalizations, including a loving coo-purring known to biologists as the “muk muk” sound and reserved for kits and courtship. Our backyard resounds more often with the “kuk” call, which warns of predators such as big, furry dogs trying desperately but ineffectively to scramble up trees.
Adkins Arboretum, with its mature woodlands and dense understory vegetation, is prime squirrel habitat. In these last weeks before spring buds unfurl, numerous dreys can be spotted along the woodland paths. I like to envision sleeping kits nestled in their leafy bowers; careful listeners may even discern a “muk muk” on the breeze.
by Jenny Houghton
Youth Program Coordinator