The genus name comes from two words, one of which means shade-tail (Sciurus).
The species name refers to the fact that
The red squirrel has powerful hind legs for climbing and jumping. The
front legs are smaller, and have thumbs. The other
fingers are longer with round, sharp claws set close together. The toes are all the same length and more powerful than the
fingers, so this squirrel can climb trees very quickly. The red squirrel's bushy tail has hairs that can be up to 4 inches (10
cm) long. The purpose of the tail is to maintain balance while the squirrel leaps from branch to branch. When the animal sits,
the tail may be laid up over its back. This squirrel is one of the noisiest little creatures in the forest, noted for chattering and
scolding those who venture too close. The red squirrel may also stamp its feet and jerk its tail when upset.
The primary habitat for the red squirrel is evergreen forest. North
American red squirrels are present in the northern
Red squirrels live in nests of twigs, bark, and leaves built in trees
or in tree hollows. Nests have been found as high as 65
feet (20 m) above the ground. The nest is where the red squirrel feeds, sleeps, gives birth, raises its young, and stays warm
in winter. Unlike some other species of squirrels, the red squirrel does not usually hibernate . Only red squirrels living in
the far north of Canada actually hibernate during the winter. Red squirrels are diurnal, active in morning and late afternoon
in warm months, and mid-day during the winter.
Red squirrels usually mate in early to late spring. The pregnancy lasts
about 7 weeks, so the young are born in late spring or
early summer. A second litter may come in late summer. A litter usually numbers 2 to 6 young, who are born furless and
sightless. In a few days, fur appears on the young squirrels, but it takes about 5 weeks for their eyes to open. The mother
squirrel keeps the babies clean by holding them while she licks them. Baby squirrels spend much of their time playing and
learning to obtain food. By early fall the young squirrels are ready for life on their own.
Adult red squirrels feed on conifer seeds from pine, spruce, and hemlock
cones. They also eat berries, nuts, mushrooms,
insects, and small seeds from deciduous trees, such as maples and elms. Cones and seeds are gathered in summer and fall
and stored for winter in hiding places called caches . Caches may be located in small burrows or in tree hollows. The
squirrel marks each spot with a special scent. Squirrels use their sense of smell to locate pine cones that are as much as 12
inches (30 cm) under the snow. The squirrel feeds sitting up on the hind legs and holding food in the front paws. After eating,
the squirrel leaves piles of cone cuttings and nutshells behind.
Only about 25% of red squirrels survive to become adults. Squirrels
surviving to adulthood can live to be about 10 to 12
years old. The main predators of red squirrels are hawks, owls, coyotes, and weasel-like creatures called pine martens.
Squirrels escape from predators by running down tree trunks in a spiral or climbing to the top of a tree and jumping to the
Squirrels contribute to the health of the forest habitat. When squirrels
bury nuts and seeds and forget to come back to get
them, the forest is actually being re-seeded. This species is harvested for fur in Canada, even though prices are low.
Because of their small size, this species is rarely hunted in South
Dakota. The most significant threat to red squirrel
populations is loss of habitat. Most red squirrel dens in the Black Hills are in large, old snags and large, downed trees in
old growth forest. The older, undisturbed pine or spruce forests have the most den sites and greatest variety of food sources
for these squirrels.
Arboreal - living in or among trees.
Cache - a hiding place to store food or supplies.
Conifer - any of a large group of trees and shrubs, many of which are evergreen, that bear cones.
Diurnal - active during the day.
Hibernate - to pass the winter in a dormant or inactive state with lowered metabolism and heart rate.
Molts - shed fur before a new growth.
Snags - tall, dead trees that are left standing in the woods.
Collins: Complete Field Guide to American Wildlife.
Over, W. H., 1941. Mammals of South Dakota, Museum and Department of Zoology, USD, Vermillion, SD.
Grzimek, H.C. Bernard, 1975. Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia, Vol 12 (Mammals III). Van Nostrand and Reinhold
Company New York.
Jones, J. Knox, et al, 1983. Mammals of the Northern Great Plains. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln, NE.
Wild Wild World of Animals, Rabbits and other small animals, published
by Time-Life Films.
Animals of the Prairie, Miller, W. And Larson, D. 1964 Published by the Record Printers, Grafton, ND.
Kathy Snyder, biology student, Northern State University, Aberdeen, SD. 1997.
Kathy Colavitti, independent artist, Green Bay, WI.
Doug Backlund, Resource Biologist, S.D. Dept. of Game, Fish, and Parks, Pierre, SD.
Publication of the Red Squirrel fact sheet was funded by the
South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, Division of
Wildlife, Pierre, SD.