26th April 2016, by
Our native red squirrel is a truly endearing wee creature. More demure and delicate in appearance, than the American grey squirrels and much more elusive, red squirrels spend most of their time in the tree canopy. Spring time, before the leaves fully open and shield them from our gaze, can be a marvellous time for spotting squirrels. Squirrels are super active at this time with the joys of spring. Food reserves from winter are low and energy demands are high with young in the drey demanding to be fed, so squirrels will feed on buds and flowers and stored fungi and lichens. Recently a picture of a red squirrel eating a frog was sent to us, check out our Facebook page to see it. They really will take advantage of ANY food source at this time of year!
The first young, born in February will start to be weaned after 10-12 weeks in mid-April and make their first explorations out of the drey into the big bad world. Keep your eyes out for these cute little mini squirrels with bushy tails and visit our website to record your sightings of both red and grey squirrels and any breeding activity you see.
With the first litter being weaned, females become fertile again and the month of May is a great time to see mating chases for second broods. Squirrels breed promiscuously, with several males chasing a female in heat. Often it is the dominant male that wins the race but 30% of mating does involve younger satellite males. Genetic finger-printing has confirmed that squirrel kittens from the same litter can have different fathers!
Exact timing of breeding varies with food availability and squirrels seem to be able to predict a future bumper food crop and produce 2nd broods to take advantage of this. Nobody knows how they do this but they may take cues from the number of flowers and buds in spring. For females to produce 2 broods they must maintain their body mass and heavy losses of young can occur if they can’t find enough food to keep lactating. Grey squirrels are food cache thieves and this causes big problems for our small reds. The loss of winter food stores can mean red squirrels don’t successfully rear young or fail to produce a 2nd brood. All this helps the invading grey squirrel get an advantage.
Keep your eyes open for fresh young squirrels out in the woods before they disappear among the leaves. Make sure you report any sightings too, especially young squirrels. We'd love to know if they are breeding near you!