Nature Notes

Written by Tolly Beck
Tolly Beck is the horticulturist at Lasdon Park and Arboretum in Westchester County. She was formerly a horticulture educator for New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rockland, NY.

American Red Squirrels

   Autumn is a busy time for woodland animals and birds. A walk in the woods in fall is often accompanied by the sounds of leaves rustling as gray squirrels and chipmunks are busy gathering and burying acorns for winter. Birds, too, collect seeds and tuck them in areas under the bark of trees and in tree cavities. One of the most unusual methods of storing food for the winter ahead is seen by the activities of American red squirrels.

   American Red squirrels are small and have reddish brown fur on top with white underneath. They also have a distinctive white ring around their eyes.  American Red squirrels live primarily in conifer forests and prefer a diet of nuts as well as seeds from pine cones, especially those from spruce trees. As cooler weather approaches, the red squirrels will often begin to gather up large quantities of green or not yet ripened pine cones. Their storage method is unusual because instead of burying their total cache for winter, they store the pine cones in piles and mounds.

   The mounds/ pyramids can often be found in low lying, damp areas of a forest at the base of tree trunks. By piling up green pine cones in a damp area, the red squirrels can help to keep the pine cones moist and prevent them from drying out too quickly. If the pine cones become dry, they begin to open and release their seeds. By slowly allowing the pine cones to dry out and release their seeds, the American red squirrels have a longer lasting supply during winter.

   One year, the American red squirrels here at Lasdon Park made use of the unsold evergreen wreaths that were laid out on the benches by the Shop. The fall was a wet one and the wreaths appeared to be the perfect, moist support for a pyramid of pine cones. The centers of each wreath were filled with a pyramid of spruce pine cones providing a festive, although unusual, holiday display.

   Come and enjoy the paths and trails at Lasdon Park.   You never know what surprises nature has in store for you.