While some might discourage a squirrel in their bird feeder, this one was welcome at my house.
My visitor was a Douglas squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii), the most common native squirrel in coastal forests from western British Columbia through central California. You’ve likely seen one: dark reddish-brown above, orange beneath, and orange nearly ringing the eyes. Look closely and you’ll notice the short, erect tufts of dark fur on the tops of the ears.
Up to 14” long overall, nearly half this tree squirrel’s overall length is its tail. Tree squirrels’ fluffy tails help them keep their balance when dashing about, as well as keep them warm in cold weather. My visitor kept his tail tightly against his back while dining.
I wasn’t too surprised to see this guy in the bird seed, since not too long ago I saw a Douglas squirrel bounding through the heavy branches of the century-old American elm next to our house. Although tree squirrels will make large nests in branches using twigs and leaves, they prefer making nests in large holes in trees, such as those excavated by woodpeckers.
And it was no surprise he was attracted to the bird seed: Douglas squirrels dine on conifer seeds, berries, fruits, mushrooms—and sunflower seeds, from the looks of my depleted bird feeder.
These noisy and active mammals are specialists in conifer seeds. Holding a cone upright, the squirrel snips off the cone’s woody bracts one at a time with its teeth to access the seeds. The severed bract drops as the squirrel takes the seed in its mouth to eat or to store. And store they do: tree squirrels have been known to make thousands of caches.
Hikers are more likely to see a Douglas squirrel “middens” than a nest or a cache along a forest trail. A squirrel midden is a pile of cast-off cone bracts and the empty “cobs,” usually directly under a broad branch with a good view of potential predators or competition.
Rodents are nearly always food, too: coyotes, hawks and owls, martins, bobcats, and domestic cats dine on Douglas squirrels.
“Noisy”? Douglas squirrels are often called “chickarees” because of the chipping scold they lavish on intruders. Chickarees defend large territories -- up to several acres.
The chickaree on my back deck jumped at the birds around the seed tray to flush them away. It even suddenly climbed a tall deck post to spook a Steller’s jay from the suet feeder hanging nearby -- even though I didn’t see the chickaree show any interest in the suet himself.
Oregon has several other native squirrels. The western gray squirrel is the large, native squirrel of western Oregon (and the rain-shadow of the High Cascades). The red squirrel is the native squirrel of the northern North American forests, living in our state in parts of Central Oregon and in the northeast corner.
Most of Oregon’s eight ground squirrels have skinny tails (and most live in the drier half of the state). The golden-mantled ground squirrel is common in trail-head parking lots and campgrounds in Central and Eastern Oregon, and in the Klamath/Siskiyous, where they dine on people food by thievery or begging. (Don’t feed them, though -- nearly all people food is bad for them and direct contact between human and squirrel can be bad for both of you. At the very least, wild animals habituated to people run the risk of being hurt.)
When I was a kid in the Willamette Valley, we called the hefty, fluffy-tailed California ground squirrels “gray diggers.” The yellow-bellied marmots of Oregon’s eastern regions are squirrels, too, the largest in Oregon.
Oregon also has two non-native squirrels: eastern gray squirrels are urban dwellers Oregon, commonly seen in Salem, Portland, and a few other larger cities in the state; eastern fox squirrel is an introduced tree squirrel of urban areas and nut orchards, mostly in the Willamette Valley.
Yes, chipmunks are related to squirrels, and they look like small, striped squirrels. The common chipmunk on the Oregon Coast is Townsend’s chipmunk, one of five that live in the state.
With their big eyes, cute nose, rounded ears, hand-like paws, fluffy tail, and quick, inquisitive behavior, squirrels can be adorable -- even while they’re gobbling down food we’ve set out for the birds.
They can be quite bold, too. After chasing off the birds, this chickaree let me get a few feet from him before deciding to give way.
As tempting as it is to try to get my visitor to eat out of my hand, I know better: ODFW reports that “[s]quirrel bites are the most common type of wildlife related bite…and almost every reported bite can be traced back to feeding of the offending squirrel.” And they can carry several diseases dangerous to people.
This guy is a significant upgrade from the domestic rat that pilfered my bird feeder last winter. The chickaree can come back as often as he likes, and I’ll happily watch him eat the birds’ seed.