by Jeff Goulden (Published by the Arizona Daily Sun - July 30, 2020)
When I first visited Flagstaff, my daughter told me about a squirrel with unusually long ears. The first time I saw one of these strange critters, I thought I was looking at a miniature rabbit. Then it scampered up a tree and I realized this was no bunny. This was the Abert’s squirrel she had been telling me about.
The Abert's squirrel (Sciurus aberti woodhouse) is named after two people. Col. John James Abert (1788–1863) was an American military officer and naturalist. He was the head of the Corps of Topographical Engineers who led the effort to explore and map the West. Samuel Washington Woodhouse (1821–1904) was a doctor and naturalist for the 1851 Sitgreaves Expedition which explored from New Mexico, across Arizona to Fort Yuma in California.
Abert’s squirrels are identified by their dark gray back with a reddish-brown patch on top, white underbelly and large bushy tail. The big tufted ears are their most distinctive feature. The ear tufts are longer in the winter and may disappear altogether in the summer. Abert's squirrels have strong rear paws and hind legs, well-adapted for living in trees, climbing and jumping from branch to branch. They are non-territorial, even social animals who often overlap ranges with other squirrels. They do not hibernate or cache their food and can be seen foraging throughout the year.
Abert's squirrels live in the mountains of Northern Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, parts of Wyoming and North Central Mexico where they thrive in the ponderosa pine forests. Flagstaff is ideal for Abert’s squirrels because the Coconino and Kaibab National Forests contain the largest contiguous ponderosa forest in the world.
Eating is a complicated, messy and year-round affair for the Abert’s squirrel. Its favorite food source is the ponderosa pine cone which begins to develop each May. The squirrel holds the cone with its front paws and rotates it, peeling away and discarding the scales to consume the tasty seeds.
As pine cones mature through the summer a single squirrel can eat the seeds from as many as 75 cones daily. When the pine cones are depleted of seeds, the Abert’s squirrel turns to the pine twigs for its primary source of food. After the needle clusters and outer bark of the twigs are removed and discarded, the nutritious inner bark is consumed. In the wintertime a single squirrel can gnaw on 45 twigs per day. The squirrel’s diet also includes the buds and shoots of the pine as well as tree sap, thought to be a “sweet treat”, and an underground fungi known as “false truffles”.
The symbiotic relationship between squirrel and pine tree is both complex and intriguing. Ponderosas provide each squirrel with the nutrition and shelter it needs; the squirrels help the trees by spreading spores from the truffles they eat. The transplanted truffles then grow around the tree roots to help maintain moisture which is beneficial to the ponderosa.
The messy eating habits of the Abert's squirrel benefits other animals too. When uneaten pine scales and outer bark are dropped, the debris piles up beneath the tree. These squirrel “trash piles” are quickly consumed by mule deer.
The Abert's squirrel builds its nest high up in the branches of a ponderosa. A typical nest is constructed from pine twigs and is similar in size to that of a large bird. Plant material is collected to line the nest which is used for sleeping and living during cold weather as well as for raising the young. In late spring or early summer, one to five pink hairless and sightless baby squirrels are born. By August, the youngsters emerge from the nest to begin foraging alongside the parents.
As I study, photograph and write about nature, I am constantly learning different ways that wildlife adapts and connects to its natural surroundings. The symbiotic relationship of the Abert’s squirrel with the ponderosa pine forest is just one example of how all life is interconnected. Nature is a delicate balance that we can appreciate and should all work to protect.
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In this Photo Blog I have combined my 50 year passion for photography and my love of the natural world, creating a portfolio that reveals nature in its pure and simple beauty. I am pleased to share my passion with you through this blog.