In the 10 years that I have been volunteering at Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society, this year has been the busiest baby wildlife season I have ever experienced.
After the late arrival of the first baby birds, we have been inundated with birds and mammals, especially fawns.
Another charming little creature we have in care is the North American red squirrel. We received two young squirrels that had followed a dog home; they seemed to have adopted the dog looking for warmth, food and shelter.
First identified in Hudson Bay, these small rodent-like animals are found all across North America. Locally, they are the only species of squirrel, the other two being the aggressive grey squirrel, found in the Victoria area, and the Douglas squirrel, which is only found on the mainland.
Red squirrels have rusty red coats, which they molt twice a year. Their undersides are beige, and they have white circles around their coal black eyes. Although bushy, their tails are not as full as other species but are used to help them balance when climbing or jumping through the trees.
Extremely agile red squirrels have powerful hind legs and curved claws on their front feet, which enable them to hang upside down on branches or tree trunks. The silence of the forest is often shattered by their raucous chattering as they ward off would-be predators.
They have a great vocal range, including growls, screeches, buzzes and chirps that are often accompanied by foot stomping and tail jerking.
This squirrel’s habitat includes deciduous and coniferous forests, which provide a great food source for them; they dine on nuts, fruits, pine cones, fungi, insects, baby birds and eggs.
Another favourite for them is maple sap. They will bite into the tree to free the sap and then return once the water has evaporated to eat the dried sap that has a high sugar content.
In the fall, the squirrels are great hoarders, collecting and storing food for the winter in “middens,” which are then marked with a scent that enables them to relocate the food in the winter. Due to this practice, squirrels are very important tree planters and seed dispersers, helping rejuvenate the forest.
Red squirrels are very solitary creatures with a small territory that they noisily defend and protect. Coming into heat for only one day of the year, the female makes an exception on this day allowing the male into her territory.
On average, three to seven young are produced in a litter. The babies are born naked, blind and totally dependent on their mother.
Weaned at eight weeks, they will be independent by 18 weeks, but it is critical for them to remain with the mother until they have learned the skills they need to sustain them through the first winter.
The two young squirrels being cared for at M.A.R.S. still need to be nursed by a tiny bottle. I had the pleasure of doing this, and it was like trying to feed a furry eel — they are nonstop “sqirmers.”
As soon as they are weaned, they will be moved to a cage which will resemble the forest they will be released to, but first they must pass a test to assess their ability to survive in the wild. They must learn to hoard or bury their food and also to find hidden food, lap water from a container, jump for branches and hang upside down, collect nesting material and crack nuts and extract pine nuts. This process is lengthier than in the wild, as we have to watch their progress and at the same time retain their wild nature and not habituate them to humans.
Only the strong will survive their first winter. Many will fall prey to owls, hawks, martens and domestic cats. Please remember that as “cute” as they are, squirrels can be very destructive, gaining access to roofs and attics, where they will gnaw on wires and wood and happily make unwanted nests.
Squirrels can also be a headache for farmers when they get into storage containers, and they cause damage young trees.
Remember that with all wildlife, please do not encourage these animals by hand feeding. They do have very sharp teeth and claws and can be unpredictable.
Once again, I would emphasize the importance of leaving baby wildlife alone and calling us before intervening.
We have been swamped with “kidnapped” baby fawn by well-meaning people who assume a lone fawn is orphaned.
Raising these animals is extremely time consuming and costly, and we appreciate any donations to help us through this very busy time.
To report injured or potential orphaned wildlife, please call us toll-free at 1-800-304-9968, visit our website at www.wingtips.org. For all other calls, contact 250-337-2021.
Sandy Fairfield is the educational co-ordinator for the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS). The MARS column appears every second Friday.