Thom Smith | Naturewatch: Red squirrels noted for aggression

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Q: This past Thursday and Friday, we had visits from a flock of about a dozen evening grosbeaks. In both cases, they were chased away from our feeder by an aggressive red squirrel (is there any other kind?). Location is not far from Goose Pond, elevation 1,600 feet.

— Pete, Tyringham

A: I have never known a red squirrel that was not aggressive and territorial. I saved a quote by the late Peter G Mirick (Massachusetts Wildlife Magazine editor) that I have wanted to use in this column since 2005, "About half the length and weight of the gray squirrel, the red squirrel makes up for its lack of size by being the most pugnacious, antisocial and aggressive of our squirrels. Like misers the world over, reds don't like anybody; they even attack their partners within moments after mating."

I wonder why a red squirrel would still covet a food supply, and protect it from thieves, when by now each may have a stored cache of harvested (unopened and green) pine cones, and other seeds and nuts, for winter; winter rations of a bushel or more is a common find. As for the evening grosbeak, I continue to be surprised by the excitement caused by a flock of a half-dozen or so evening grosbeaks visiting a bird feeder for the first time. Some longtime bird feeding enthusiasts recall the numbers that were being seen commonly in the 1960s and 1970s. As I have mentioned in several other columns, back then we didn't count the number of grosbeaks as much as we counted the number of bags of gray-striped sunflower seed we fed.

The evening grosbeak breeds throughout the northern forests of Canada and northeastern United States with a few getting south to the mountains in The Berkshires and beyond. For instance, we often see and hear them at October Mountain State Forest. They also breed in the higher elevations in the West into central Mexico. During some winters, they move to more southerly in the East, and in the west to lower elevations in search of food. These "invasions" are called winter irruptions and usually begin in early October.                                   

Q: We are surrounded by hemlock trees here in southern Vermont, but never consider one for a Christmas tree. Why not?

— Edward, Bennington, Vt.

A: While the eastern or Canadian hemlock is a common tree that is easily shaped into a beautiful Christmas tree, it has one major drawback. When it dries out, it quickly loses its needles.

Q: We have a squirrel who comes to our deck all year. A few times, I caught him go into our recycle box on the deck and take a small plastic water bottle and go off with it. Do you have any idea what he might use it for? I am sure he is not thirsty, but likes the bottle. Only water was in it before I put it into the recycle bin empty.

— M. Davis

A: Squirrels are opportunistic feeders with varied diets and, like most mammals, have a far better sense of smell than we do. I guess that some intriguing odor brought this bottle to the squirrel's attention. I hope it was not too disappointed when it got the bottle to a quiet place to explore it further. Other than that, I have no idea and welcome suggestions from readers.

BALD EAGLES

Today, we see bald eagles, flying across Park Square in downtown Pittsfield, while fishing or boating at local lakes or while looking out a window at Berkshire Medical Center. The very first bald eagle I ever saw was over Bartholomew's Cobble in Ashley Falls, Sheffield, on April 30, 1960. It was flying some distance behind a rough-legged hawk. Both were migrating north and were life birds for both the now late Rick Oltsch and me.

The next eagle was in February 1965, also with Rick, but in Florida. In February 1984, I photographed several with the now late David St. James at Quabbin Reservoir. Since then, we began thinking of them as a Massachusetts breeding bird. I don't recall seeing any between those times and about 1990, when a visit to the Quabbin was often a sure thing for seeing bald eagles. In 1999, nesting eagles were confirmed in Sandisfield across the highway from Colebrook Reservoir. And then, on Appletree Point on Onota Lake, they began nesting successfully, with success spreading through the area, although I must admit I have not kept up with all the new nesting sites over the past 10 or so years. The last nest I watched was a pair attempting to build at Woods Pond in, (I believe) Lee. I watched from my kayak as crows mobbed the couple until they abandoned the unfinished platform.

According to MassWildlife, in 2018, its staff identified 76 territorial pairs of bald eagles in Massachusetts, up from 68 pairs in 2017 and the 59 pairs in 2016. From these nests, 65 chicks were successfully fledged — hatched and survived to fly — of which 45 were banded with silver federal bands and color-coded state bands.

I am sure that isn't all the nesting pairs in the commonwealth, just those confirmed by MassWildlife. If you know of a bald eagle nest, MassWildlife staff encourage you to report any observations of eagles that are suspected or known to have nests in your area. Observations of nests or adults carrying sticks or nest lining material are of special interest. Contact State Ornithologist Andrew Vitz at andrew.vitz@mass.gov.

Thom Smith welcomes readers' questions and comments. Email him at Naturewatch@live.com or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201


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