Speaking of Nature: Solving the mystery of the missing squirrels: Before the leaves begin to turn, birds and critters know the seasonal shift is coming

  • This beautiful red squirrel popped out into the open with a hickory nut in its mouth, posed for a photo and then dashed back into the forest. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

For the Recorder
Published: 9/25/2023 10:37:03 AM
Modified: 9/25/2023 10:36:13 AM

Everything seems to have changed at the end of August. Things had been going along “normally,” which meant that I needed to fill my birdfeeders every morning and they were all empty by the time I got home from work. Then, one day, I noticed that the feeders weren’t quite empty when I got home. Then, they were still half full. The season of migration was upon us.

Even before the big push southward began, there had been noticeable changes in the community around my feeders. The Red-winged Blackbirds responsible for much of the looting at my feeders had disappeared early. The Common Grackles, who were also desperately trying to find enough food to keep their chicks fed had lingered a bit longer, but even their numbers had begun to dwindle as early as the end of July. But still, the feeders were regularly emptied every day.

By the beginning of August, the breeding season was essentially over and the birds had shifted into the season of preparation. Migratory species had a few weeks to gather their strength and build up their fat reserves before their migrations got under way. Birds that had gone to such lengths to migrate north for the specific purpose of breeding were finally free of their obligations for the most part. I did, however, notice an Eastern Towhee with a couple late-season fledglings and then, of course, there was that beleaguered female Common Yellowthroat who was still feeding a Brown-headed Cowbird chick.

August 23 stands out as the day when the change finally came. It was the last time I saw a Common Grackle and my notes indicate a “dead calm and no chickadees at 7:49 a.m.” A while later I wrote, “the regulars have been sparse today; very few Blue Jays or chickadees.” As if a switch had been thrown, the conditions down in my meadow and up at my feeders just changed. Even the species that don’t really migrate seemed to change their behavior.

But the change was not limited to birds alone. At about the same time there was suddenly a conspicuous absence of squirrels up by my house. I noticed this with the gray squirrels, but it was particularly obvious when it came to the red squirrels. All through the summer I had a female red squirrel and her offspring causing all sorts of commotion out on the deck. I was routinely chastised for stepping outside and even given a stern “talking to” when replenishing the seed supply. And then it all seemed to stop. One day the squirrels were there and the next day they were gone.

But this was a mystery that I was able to explain with relatively little difficulty. My house rests on the side of a hill about half way to the top. Just to the north of my house is the road that runs east to west and approximately two acres of land are what I call my “yard.” This is where I mow the lawn, plant flowers and install nest boxes for the swallows, bluebirds and wrens. Further down the hill there are another two acres that contain a wet meadow and my Thinking Chair rests on the far southern edge of this meadow looking northward up the hill. The final two acres of my property contain forest and it was there that the mystery of the missing squirrels was solved.

The trees in “my” forest are a mixture of very mature specimens surrounded by younger trees that grew after the old farmland had been sold off and abandoned by agriculture. As seems to have been standard procedure on old farms, any sort of ravine resulting from the presence of a stream was used as a dump. The stream that empties the wet meadow caused such a ravine to form and the north side of the ravine (closest to the road) has a spot that was used as a dump. Bottles, cans, shingles, siding, spools of wire, kitchen appliances and even an old car were tossed over the side.

The old car is what provided evidence that solved the mystery of the squirrels. Growing nearby is a large hickory tree and anyone familiar with hickory trees will understand that their nuts are packaged in large and heavy armor. When a seed the size of a golf ball falls and hits the roof of an old car, it will make a loud bang and this was a routine sound that started in late August. There are also beech trees and oak trees in those woods and squirrels could hardly ignore all of this food.

I hypothesized that it was this sudden abundance of nuts that must have caused the disappearance of squirrels, but how to test my hypothesis. After all, I was most interested in bird photography and leaving my post seemed a foolish thing to do. Then, on the morning of Sept. 5, the evidence I required seemed to come looking for me. There was a bit of a ruckus off to my left near the edge of the forest and the meadow and then up popped a red squirrel with a hickory nut in its mouth.

This was a particularly odd incident because the squirrel had climbed a small, dead tree that was leaning out over the trail that goes down into the woods. Certainly the squirrel must have been familiar with the notion that this was a bridge to nowhere, but it still came out into the open, posed and then retreated. Perhaps Nikonus and Iso were responsible. It just didn’t make any sense.

Once all of the nuts are gathered and stored the squirrels will return to the feeders, but until then you may notice that everything remains oddly quiet. It happens every year, but it never ceases to alarm people, myself included. But then we remember. The leaves start to change colors, the temperatures slowly drop and we understand that winter is on the way. Things are normal after all.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 26 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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