Nut Gnashing with the Reds

The hollow in our dying Red Maple has yielded yet another crop of baby Red Squirrels. At least four of the little things are prancing about the yard, although it is hard to tell exactly how many there are. They are dashing about like so many sizzling onions on a wok – spastic balls of pure energy who will at times spontaneously jump into the air as if electro-shocked. They often engage in endless round-the-trunk chases.  About the only time they actually remain fixed to one spot is when they are dismantling walnuts. This is something they do well and often. It is in this endeavor that one can see that these rodents do have a serious side.

I could say that they handle walnuts as skillfully as a monkey handles a peanut, but that would be a silly thing to say because I’ve never seen a monkey handle a peanut. I do know that a monkey would not be equipped to handle a black walnut, but any squirrel with half a brain could probably handle a peanut better than any monkey. Now, you could teach a monkey how to use a hammer or a nutcracker to perform the task, but that would be cheating (and potentially dangerous to the trainer).  It is fascinating to see how my young squirrels – creatures of half a brain – have already mastered the ultimate challenge offered by the Black Walnut. No tools needed other than those gifted to them by the grace of the great squirrel gods.

Black Walnuts surround their seeds with a thick green husk. This coating turns rotten black once the nuts fall to the ground and this poses the first hurtle for any would be nut predator. The nut shells themselves are extremely hard and the nut meats within are compartmentalized and shoved into multiple nooks and crannies. This is the second and most formidable task for the nut eater to overcome. There is nothing easy about extracting walnut goodness. It is the tree’s intention, of course, to be difficult, but we can talk about that another time.

It was my original idea to time the squirrel’s nut processing procedure from discovery to completion, but this proved difficult. Not every nut gathered by the diminutive Red Squirrels was immediately eaten. Some were carted off to secret hiding spots and others were dropped while in transit.  Some were de-husked and abandoned when two individuals spontaneously combusted into a bout of “round the tree – you after me, me after you.” Others quit in mid-nut for no apparent reason. I did manage to put together a string of observations coming to the conclusion that it took approximately ten minutes to do the job. Ten minutes out of the life of one of these dynamos is a serious time allotment.

The greasy husk is plucked away in rather short time via a series of peeling bites. I do not know how these creatures avoid staining their faces, but they do. Then, holding the nut firmly within the full eight finger grip (Red Squirrels have surprisingly large front feet), the chisel-like teeth are employed to begin gnawing away the shell. Leverage is gained by hooking the top set of incisors into one of the many grooves within the surface of the nut and pulling up the lower teeth to meet them. The four incisors are exceedingly sharp-edged and literally “iron coated” (thus the yellowish orange appearance). Powered by strong muscles they cut through shell like butter. Unfortunately the sound of this activity is literally grating on the human ear. (I wonder how Red Squirrels would react to the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard?).

Once an opening is made into one side of the walnut, these same incisors scoop out the nut meats from every angle possible. The squirrels then turn the nut over and make a new opening from the other side. Sometimes they gnaw out a trough from one side to the other.  When they happen to enter the nut from the top, they simply chew away half of it in order to expose both nut chambers in the process. Red Squirrel work is easily identified after the fact (see above). And, because these squirrels are active throughout the nutting season their “work” piles up at the base of the tree.

There is very little nut left inside the shell carcass once a Red Squirrel has finished its task. I watched as a tentative looking White-breasted Nuthatch approach one of these empty shells. It carefully eyed the shell from all angles and then leaned forward to peck out a few scraps of nut dust. After a few more discouraged glances it flew off – there was nutt’n left for a self respecting nuthatch to hatch.

**NOTE: In case you didn’t see enough, I’ll post a few more Red-Squirrel movies  and pics in a few days.

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