Red with a Side of Gray

Ounce for ounce, Red Squirrels are one of the pluckiest beasts around – this in spite of the fact that they are rather small mammals. Most undersized mammals make it a habit to be secretive. They are, after all, usually part of the predatory dinner menu. I mean, look at Winnies the Pooh’s Piglet and his general fear of everything. It is good survival sense not to call attention to yourself when you are small and weak. Red Squirrels, on the other hand, are more like C.S. Lewis’s brave character mouse Reepacheap. They think nothing of verbally taking on creatures 100 times their size. If they perceive that some great injustice has occurred they will tell you. Crossing over an invisible territorial boundary is an example of one such infraction.

I am not here to dwell on the pugnacious nature of the Red Squirrel, however. I merely highlight this fact because their “in your face” nature makes them a very visible part of the winter landscape. They don’t tend to hide right away. Fortunately, Red Squirrels happen to be one of our more visually interesting mammals. Let’s face it, most of our cold-season fur bearers are characterized by their plain Amish style fashion (by this I mean a practical use of subtle color palettes). Red Squirrels are boldly colored with white bellies edged with two black racing stripes, a nice rufous red-brown back, white eye rings, and even a dashing black nose stripe (see beginning photo and here).

During the winter these dynamos take on a drizzling of gray about the sides of the head and torso. This peppery dash certainly enhances their look. The amount of grayness varies between individuals. Some of these creatures appear more like tiny Gray Squirrels (such as the half-tailed version shown above). Unfortunately, there are true Gray Squirrels out there and some of those true Gray Squirrels can be coal black in color. So, it is possible to have a Black Gray Squirrel sitting next to a Gray Red Squirrel on your feeder. Several decades ago there was a regular population of albino Red Squirrels at Kensington Metropark near Brighton, MI.  Back then you could have added a White Red Squirrel to this confusing mix. Not that this has anything to do with it, but I believe this was about the time the Red Green Show started on Canadian television.

In reality, no self-respecting Red Squirrel – red, gray, or white – would allow a Gray Squirrel – gray or black – to sit next to it anywhere, so the potential situation posed above would never actually happen. Red Squirrels have been known to literally bite off the balls of fleeing Gray Squirrels (and I am not completely making this up). In fact, even two Red Squirrels of any color can’t stand the proximity of each other beyond the mating season. This probably explains how the short-tailed squirrel (below) lost half his tail. He’s lucky to have his masculinity intact.

Many mammals, even those Amish ones alluded to earlier, put on a grayer coat in the wintertime. Part of this has to do with blending into the gray winter scene. Northern mammals as a whole are generally much grayer than their southern counterparts, but I won’t get into that because our northern Red Squirrels are actually southern Red Squirrels and that would lead into another semantic nightmare. Red Squirrels, apart from growing longer grayer fur during the winter, also put on a pair of long ear tufts.  This adds to their especially “perky” cold-weather appearance.  All of these hair features disappear during the summer, although the sparky nature of the beast that goes with them does not.


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