Thom Smith | NatureWatch: Did you know groundhog is part of squirrel family?

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Q: I have seen the questions and answers about squirrels (gray squirrels that are actually black, some that are white, and now some that are brown), but in and around the trees in our backyard, we have several gray squirrels (actually gray) and a few red squirrels, which are much smaller than the gray squirrels. I don't remember you or anyone else mentioning the red squirrels in your column. They are a distinct species, aren't they?

We have noticed that there seem to be two distinct habits among the robins that visit our neighborhood: Moderate-sized robins that seem to travel in clusters of 10 or 15 or 20, arrive as a group and then depart as a group after a few minutes, and larger robins that arrive one or two at a time, stay around longer, and then leave one by one. Is this a real thing — females doing one thing, males another, or are we just imagining the differences?

— Don, Pittsfield

A: Take my word; I have answered questions about the red squirrel, and yes, it is a species different from other squirrels.

The exciting thing about the squirrel family is that there are two species that most would never think of as squirrels — the woodchuck and the Eastern chipmunk. The chipmunk is a ground squirrel, sometimes called the chipping squirrel or rock squirrel. And, although they are not often seen during the winter months, they are not typical hibernators. Still, many, with our cold, snowy winters do become dormant during severe weather, coming out on warm, sunny "winter thaws." This is particularly true for individuals living in the vicinity of bird feeders with spilled seed. If you have ever watched chippies in the fall, you will know they spend considerable time gathering seeds. If there are nuts, including acorns, they are filling their pouches for their winter larder.

One of my favorite volumes for lesser-known information about regional mammals is the 1977 "Wild Mammals of New England" by Alfred J. Godin, professor and mammologist, published by The John Hopkins University Press. In it, we may read, for instance, just how many seeds a chipmunk can carry. He prefaces it with: "The amount of food a chipmunk can carry in its cheek pouches is remarkable. Klugh (1923) counted a total of 31 kernels of corn in a chipmunks cheek pouches, and Fraleigh (1929) counted 13 prune pits at one time and approximately 70 sunflower seeds at one time, while Allen (1938) collected a chipmunk that held 32 beechnuts." While these studies do not mention it, chipmunks cleaned several young blueberry bushes of nearly ripened fruit from our yard.

Least recognized as a squirrel is weather prophet, the woodchuck. It is the largest squirrel in New England. And while we think of them as being terrestrial, they can climb trees and can easily climb 15 or more feet to escape a predator. We commonly see them walking from one succulent clump of tasty greens to the next, and woe is the gardener if his or her vegetables are found. When frightened, the woodchuck can gallop up to 10 miles per hour, often to its den. Although I have never had the honor of seeing this, I am told that they swim well. Also called the groundhog, and sometimes, maybe in Georgia or Alabama, the whistle pig!

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This rodent does not cache food for winter. Hence, as summer wanes, they eat succulents with gusto, accumulating fat to keep them through the winter months. They are like some weight watchers, gaining weight for six months and losing it for six months. They are true hibernators in which respiration and heartbeat slow dramatically.

The best known of the family is the gray squirrel most often mentioned in this column when seen in black pelage. The silver tail, as it sometimes is called, is found mostly in mixed coniferous-hardwood forests and in wooded parks and neighborhoods, especially where there are oaks. Other nut trees, like the common beeches, are also relished. Like the chipmunk, they store food for the winter, but not in a primary larder, but scatter at random. Their best human friends are those who have well-stocked bird feeders. These rodents quickly adapt to humans, and before I began using squirrel-proof bird feeders would sometimes have to swat one to get it to leave.

Half the size of the gray or smaller, and far less sociable, is the red squirrel, sometimes seen in neighborhoods, but far more common in coniferous forests of spruce, balsam, hemlock, even pine. They are arboreal, so references say, but do spend considerable time on the ground. Like the gray, they are most active during daylight hours. Their winter larder is often large underground piles or caches of a bushel or more of seeds. These are called midden heaps, and perhaps you may have found such a mound in an evergreen forest.

The last two members in New England's squirrel family are the flying squirrels, the northern and the southern. I believe both are found in the Berkshires, although the southern is more common. They do not fly, bats are the only flying mammals, but instead glide and may well be better-named gliders. They will climb to a high point and then glide down to their destination. Between the outside wrist of the front legs, and the ankle on the hind leg on both sides, is a loose fold of skin called the gliding membranes.

They are primarily nocturnal, thus rarely seen. I once found a family of them living in my sock drawer when I lived near the sanctuary in Lenox. After being discovered, the entire family (except one) found a new home. I raised the lone baby that became quite a pet while growing up and would sleep the day away in a shirt or jacket pocket. Very few knew of the youngster enjoying the warmth. Upon maturity, I offered it its freedom (although it always had the opportunity), and it accepted without a goodbye. Both species feed on nuts, acorns, tree buds and the like, and often nest in abandoned woodpecker holes.

ROBINS

I do not think it has anything to do with sexes. I recall Bart Hendricks, then Science Curator at the Berkshire Museum drilled into me that we have two subspecies of robins. The northern is larger and is often seen in flocks during the winter, and the southern, that is the harbinger of spring and nests here during the summer. Some remain during winter and are found in flocks, too.

For confirmation, I emailed Tom Tyning, environmental science professor at Berkshire Community College, who answered, "I'm with you on this; however, recent taxonomists suggest there are population differences rather than calling them subspecies." Here's a piece from Sibley Guides that reflects current "understanding" of robins: sibleyguides.com/bird-info/american-robin.


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