For many of us, the arrival of March signifies the end of a cold, long winter.
Winter storms may not have completely subsided but are less frequent and less intense, the days are longer, and a number of animal species are venturing out for the first time.
One popular local whose activity level may increase during March, but is seen all winter long, is the Abert's squirrel. The Abert's squirrel is a tree squirrel found in mountainous areas from Wyoming to northern Mexico. Unlike many other indigenous animals, it does not hibernate. The Abert's squirrel with its tufted ears is unique - never content with the status quo.
The Abert's squirrel is diurnal, or active between sunrise and sunset. It survives harsh winters by building nests in the trees. During winter, it will not exit its shelter as early as usual, remaining inside until the sun has warmed its core temperature enough to brave the cold.
It was once believed that the Abert's squirrel would live and nest only in ponderosas. It is now known that the squirrel can survive in a variety of coniferous forests and the degree to which the squirrel depends on ponderosas is debatable. What is not debated is that the squirrel relies on trees for shelter, nesting and food.
The squirrel is also exceptional because it does not store winter food in large caches. It is a scatter-hoarder that knows better than to leave the bulk of its food hidden in one place, vulnerable to raids by the first opportunist to stumble upon it. Instead, the squirrel scatters food over a large home range, relying on an accurate spatial memory to retrieve the food later.
This is not the squirrel's only talent. It is also good at making do with what food winter has to offer. The Abert's squirrel does not need to rely heavily on hidden caches because its winter diet consists mostly of the ponderosa's inner bark, and any mistletoe or fungi growing on the trees. Caches add variety to the winter diet and are good because inner bark does not provide as many nutrients as the tree's buds and seeds.
So, if the Abert's squirrel remains active during the winter, why is it that it is more active now that spring is upon us? The answer is simple and perhaps best summarized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: "In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love."
From March through May, you may glimpse the Abert's squirrel dashing through the canopy high above. Is it a female leading the males on an endless race, or a male pursuing his love (or love for the day, as they are not monogamous)? Either way, the squirrel's courtship ritual is wonderfully entertaining, and a sign that spring has arrived.
gretchen@DurangoNatureStudies.org or 382-9244.
Gretchen Lamar is program manager for Durango Nature Studies.