This time of year, the squirrels of Oakland County are full speed ahead, with the notable exception of the seldom seen thirteen-lined ground squirrels that snooze the winter away underground in deep hibernation. Squirrels need to stay in the full speed ahead, always alert mode, if they expect to live until spring. Coyotes, red and gray foxes, red-tailed hawks, feral and domestic cats, and the great horned owls that hunt at dusk all pay attention to squirrels as a winter food source. Frequenting bird feeders, one of these hungry predators can easily find a bounty of busy squirrels.
Bird feeding stations are the focal point of activity for most gray, red and fox squirrels: the three species that want you to overfill the feeder. What about the black squirrels? Black-colored squirrels (Scirus carolinensis) are a melanistic variety of our common eastern gray squirrel; so in reality, black squirrels are really gray squirrels. One of the best places to see them is on the grounds of the Red Oaks Nature Center in Madison Heights, but they may be seen in all of the Oakland County Parks.
Squirrel nests are well designed dual-function shelters. In spring and summer, they are hidden among dense leaves that serve them well while raising their young. However, as the leaves on the oaks browned and crackled in the gales of November, the gray squirrels and fox squirrels gathered extra leaves to weave into their tree top nests. Many of these nests are now easy to spot and are often seen trailside in or near lofty oaks and hickory trees. The oaks provide squirrels with acorns and the hickory trees gift them with nuts. Their large circular-shaped nests of leaves and twigs are constructed in forked branches to give them added strength and stability. In addition to that, they are water, snow and windproof. Wildlife biologists claim that during extreme cold, several squirrels may huddle together in one nest. That’s something that I think camping humans in an extreme environment might do too.
The smaller, boisterous red-squirrel, that is often seen feeding among the confers or chasing larger squirrels away from a bird feeder, creates a ball shaped nest of dried grasses and leaves inside a hollow tree. In the event that hollow trees are lacking, they may build a nest among a thick tangle of vines at least fifteen to twenty feet off the ground. There is a myth making the rounds, that all squirrels build their nests high enough to avoid the expected snowfall. If that was true, and it is not, we could expect the glaciers to return this winter. For many of the gray squirrel nests, found along trail sides, at Addison Oaks, Independence Oaks and Rose Oaks County parks are 40 or more feet above ground.
Text and photos by Jonathan Schechter, Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Parks. Schechterj@oakgov.com
Visit Oakland County Parks for details on all 13 Oakland County Parks and winter nature recreation opportunities.