As we kick into high gear trying to live up to our New Year’s resolutions, the wildlife in our area go about their business.
For an animal living at higher elevations, the goal in January is to survive and adapt to the snow and food shortage. I suppose, if we anthropomorphize a bit, we could say that a New Year’s resolution might be to store even more food this year, to find a warmer winter sleeping spot or to actually gain a little weight this season. Oh, what it would be to have that as a goal.
One mammal that throws caution to the wind when it comes to storing food is the Abert’s squirrel. The Abert’s squirrel is primarily a boreal, or tree-dwelling, animal that does not store its food like other North American squirrels. These squirrels depend on the ponderosa pine year-round for food, eating the seeds, inner bark, pollen cones and buds. A single squirrel may consume the seeds from 75 cones a day in summer and eat the inner bark of as many as 45 twigs per day in the winter.
Abert’s squirrels have certain “feed trees” where they snip off twigs, eat the inner bark and drop the rest to the ground. They are active during the day, so they can be seen, but unlike other squirrels, Abert’s squirrels are not very noisy. As February approaches, so does mating season, and a female may be seen running through the trees chased by a group of males. They usually return to their year-round shelter before sunset.
Abert’s squirrels have a limited range, partly because of their dependence on the ponderosa pine. They are confined to the Colorado Plateau and the southern Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Their range extends south in the Sierra Madre Occidental to Chihuahua, Mexico, and to Durango, Mexico. They also can be found in some ponderosa stands in Wyoming.
Many people who visit the Durango area will see their first Abert’s squirrel and think they have seen something completely unique. Because of its long ear tufts, which can reach up to 1.8 inches, it stands out among squirrels, hence its other common name – the tassel-eared squirrel.
If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to see or learn more about tassel-eared squirrels, you are in luck. My limited knowledge may have peaked your interest, but we have the premier tassel-eared squirrel expert in the country living in Durango and serving on the Durango Nature Studies’ board.
Sylvester Allred, a former professor at Northern Arizona University, will be teaching a snowshoe workshop about tassel-eared squirrels this month. He also has written a wonderful book called Rascal, the Tassel-Eared Squirrel, which is available at Maria’s Bookshop.
I hope to see you this winter at this workshop or upcoming workshops, whether it’s to delve deeper into the fascinating natural history of Abert’s squirrel or check off something on your resolution list within the first month of the year.
sally@durangonature studies.org or 382-9244. Sally Shuffield is executive director of Durango Nature Studies.