Bushy-tailed and cute, able to leap from tree to tree in a single bound and raid any bird feeder ever invented, gray squirrels are omnipresent in our woods, backyards and city parks. There may be more mice in the grass, but squirrels are the rodents we see, and like.
“Even in city parks, people are used to squirrels,” said urban wildlife biologist Laura Simon. “If they saw a raccoon, they’d freak out.”
But now, and throughout the fall, gray squirrels do that which they seldom get credit for — they help regenerate forests.
“They are little farmers,” said Ann Taylor, executive director of New Pond Farm Education Center in Redding.
They do this by industriously caching acorns and other nuts, building up their winter food stock in hidden depots throughout the woods.
But because they never eat all the food they put away, the acorns they leave on the forest plate can germinate in the spring, often far away from the parent tree.
So if Connecticut’s oak forests came back after the settlers cut most of the state’s trees down the in the first half of the 19th century, we have squirrels and blue jays — another species that plays cache — to thank.
And this year, they may be very busy. Based on anecdotal observations, it appears to be a mast year, when oak and other nut trees produce a huge crop of fruit, the better to make sure that seedlings get established somewhere.
“Definitely,” said Sean McNamara owner of the Redding Nursery when asked f he was seeing a lot of acorns this year. “It’s definitely a stronger year than last year.”
“I’m looking at the oak tree outside my window,” said Paul Elconin, land conservation director for the Kent-based Weantinoge Heritage Land Trust “It’s totally overloaded.”
“I’ve seen a lot in my backyard,” said Jenny Dickson, director of the wildlife division of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
That’s important for the entire ecosystem.
“Oak acorns are a keystone food source,” said Jeff Ward, forester with the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven. “Deer, turkeys, chipmunks, mice, red squirrels, gray squirrels, flying squirrels — they all depend on acorns.”
In turn, so do predators who eat acorn-fattened prey, including coyotes, bobcats, foxes, hawks, and owls. They’ll thrive in turn.
Oak mast years aren’t entirely understood. It’s unclear what signals an oak tree to go nuts one year and skimp the next.
The DEEP’s Dickson said there are regular boom-and-bust cycles for oaks. But, she said, weather conditions like prolonged droughts, can alter those cycles.
“If the trees are stressed, they won’t put their energy into reproduction,” she said.
Those stresses can also include diseases and insect infestations, said Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association. Climate change may be a factor as well, he said.
Which is why squirrels aren’t just adorable. They’re important in helping oaks — a species in decline — spread in the woods.
“When acorns fall, they fall straight down,” Simon said. “They need transport.”
In turn, oaks and squirrels need each other. The year after an acorn mast year, when they’ve eaten their fill, gotten healthy and had lots of offspring, there are a lot of gray squirrels running around.
Conversely, when the acorn crop fails, squirrels have a rocky time of it. Their numbers crash and they get desperate. In 1933, people witnessed hundreds of gray squirrels swimming across the Connecticut River, presumably to find food.
As anyone who has seen them in January, chowing down on a bird feeder’s black-oiled sunflower seeds, gray squirrels don’t hibernate.
In winter, they use their sense of smell to find the nuts they’ve cached under the snow. They’re crepuscular — most active in the early morning and late afternoon.
And they’re selective. Researchers have found gray squirrels will eat the acorns from white oaks as soon as they find them, while caching acorns from red oaks for use during the winter.
This may be because white oak acorns start germinating as soon as they hit the ground, while red oak acorns wait until spring to begin growing. So one is best to eat right away, the other to save until later.
And the reason for their lovability? Is it their cunning, pert-eared faces? Their acrobatics?
Simon said it’s that lovely, silvery, smoky tail. Eat your heart out, opossums.
“If they had a naked tail, it would be a different story,” she said.