Speaking of Nature: Life in the wild

  • Note the irregular patch of fur on the shoulder of this squirrel that has scabies. The loss of fur and the crusty, red and irritated skin may indicate an injury or an infestation of mites. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

For the Recorder
Published: 1/12/2022 7:56:45 PM
Modified: 1/12/2022 7:55:53 PM

One of my favorite things to do on any winter morning is wake up before sunrise, make myself some coffee, replenish the seed supply in my bird feeders and then sit by the kitchen window to watch the birds arrive. I will light an oil lamp that sits on my writing desk so I can see well enough to record my observations in my red journal. I will then note the order in which the species appear and the time of their first arrivals. I’m not sure what all of this information might be useful for, but who knows what I might notice in the future.

The pattern of first arrivals is actually somewhat predictable, but lately I have noticed a “new” arrival that complicates my bird observations. Squirrels have suddenly discovered my feeders and the situation for the birds has changed somewhat. There are times when I might have over 40 mourning doves vacuuming up birdseed at an astonishing rate, and there are other times when there might be two squirrels keeping the bird numbers down. Quite honestly, it is a little annoying.

But something very different is happening this year. Instead of just one or two gray squirrels I have been seeing four and even five at a time and when there are this many individuals present you can really start to see the differences between them. Males tend to be a bit larger and more thickly build. I’ve also noticed that the males at my feeders appear to have a darker, coarser coat of fur. In contrast, the females are a little smaller, a little paler and a little “softer” in their appearance. However, it is difficult to say anything about an entire species of animals when you only have four to five examples to look at from a distance.

In the hard core world of taxonomic research the questions of about the actual differences between males and females of a species will be answered by “collecting specimens.” This is simply a euphemism for killing large numbers of individuals so they can be examined, measured, dissected and preserved for future reference. Most large universities with zoology departments will have collections of birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, insects, et cetera, that are used for teaching and research. I have never contributed to any such collection personally, but I have been involved in research that depended on them.

So, without killing the squirrels at my feeders I am left to make decisions about them based on their appearance. Males carry conveniently located, externally visible genitalia around, so that can help to identify some individuals as male or female. The big problem is keeping track of just how many of these squirrels there are. If I see three squirrels one day and then three again the following day, are they the same three squirrels? This could be answered by marking the squirrels in some way, but so far that has seemed like more trouble than it is worth. It is an option, however. I’m sure it wouldn’t be too difficult to rig up a pad that deploys some sort of dye onto their fur, or something like that.

So, while looking at these new arrivals I was quite interested to notice one individual that had a marking that would allow me to recognize it on any future visits. This was one of the larger, darker squirrels that I have decided is probably a male. On his right shoulder there is a patch of fur that isn’t quite right and it was very noticeable. It is possible that this irregularity is the result of some sort of injury, but it is also possible that it is the result of an infestation of a skin mite known as Sarcoptesscabiei. Animals infested with this arthropod are said to have a condition known commonly as “mange.”

So, as the winter unfolds I will suddenly have some interest in the appearance of squirrels. I will keep a sharp lookout for the male with the bad shoulder and I should be able to diagnose the problem fairly easily. If the condition improves, then it was likely an injury that may have resulted from an unsuccessful predator attack, or a fight between rival males. If, on the other hand, the squirrel has mange, then the condition should worsen over time. It is an unfortunate possibility, but still an interesting one.

It is easy to enjoy winter wildlife observation from the comfort of a warm home, but it is important to remember that these are wild animals living wild lives. The cutest titmouse, chickadee or squirrel is in a constant fight for survival and there is never any option of seeking medical help if something goes wrong. Fighting for food, territory and shelter is fighting for life itself in the winter and every now and then an animal loses that fight.

So the next time you take up a position near a convenient window to look out upon the world and watch all of the animals coming to your feeders, try to remember how tough and tenacious they all are. Then take a sip of a warm drink and reflect on how lucky you are to be inside where it is warm. Oh, and for those of you who might be wondering what my actual favorite thing to do on a winter morning might be, the answer is simple. I most enjoy not waking up early and sleeping late instead.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 24 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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