Better Leafing Through Chemistry

I’ve found that the internet has dumbed down so much of our culture, but infographics are a neat way to present some nuggets of information in a memorable way.

Here’s one on the chemistry of fall colors.



Tree Rat, Acrobat

Some hunters might say that the white-tailed deer is autumn’s animal icon. Others, perhaps the Canada goose, maybe the bears that begin to gorge for a long winter’s nap, but I say the ubiquitous tree squirrel is the keystone of autumn.
Who else scurries around creating middens or caches of pine cones (red squirrel) or buries nuts of all kinds (gray squirrel, fox squirrel) around your yard, your neighbor’s yard, and someone else’s two blocks over?
The tree squirrel has to be one of those animals that are so common they become invisible—except when we’re swerving to avoid crushing them under our car tires. They are found all over the world though not in Australia, Madagascar, and Antarctica.
These rodents have earned the ire of people because of their mildly destructive habits in tearing up gardens, stripping tree bark, and raiding bird feeders, and in my case, chewing up my bike seat after a red squirrel was trapped in my shed for two days.
They’ve earned many names here in North America: tree rat, puck-o’-the-pines, fairy diddle, and bannertail among others. The Ojibwa people (who resided (still do actually) in Michigan called them kitchi-adjidamo meaning big squirrel. The genus Sciurus comes from Greek and it means shadow tail.
Here in the U.S. the biggest is the fox squirrel and the smallest is the southern flying squirrel. While Pakistan holds the record for the largest existing species: the woolly flying squirrel.
Michigan is home to three tree squirrel species, the fox Sciuris niger (photo courtesy of wikimedia commons), Sciurus_niger_(on_fence)the gray (which can also have black fur) S. carolinensis, 6576b69f35c2d7137efd49accc70-grandeand the smallest of the three, the red, Tamiasciuris In addition, we have the southern flying squirrel, and farther north, the northern flying squirrel, fortuitously enough.
Tree squirrels can see in color and have a very strong sense of smell, which scientists previously thought that meant they could locate sources of cached food, but that seems to not be the case.
There is more than one coloring pattern for all North American species which confused the early naturalists.
All tree squirrels (at least in North America) share the following characteristics:
• They have whiskers (referred to as vibrissae) used to help them in dark nests and tree cavities
• Their front feet have four digits and the rear five
• While observing squirrels climbing, pay attention to their rear paws; they can turn their ankles a cringe-inducing 180° to allow for hanging, eating, and speedy vertical descent from a tree.
• The characteristic bushy tail serves as shade, protection from the elements, balance, and communication
• Different squirrels have different diets, but all overlap somewhere in the following: nuts, acorns, pine cones, insects, buds, berries, fungi, nestling birds, bird eggs, and corn
Tree squirrels have an aesthetic appeal, but their newborns do not. Blind, hairless, and with ear flaps closed, they are rather ugly (yes, it’s a judgment) until the fur comes in. They are born in litters of one to five with two to four being the average. The gestation period is 44 days for gray squirrels and 44-45 for foxes.
Squirrel romance is limited to the brief conjugal encounter as there is no bonding between parents.
Tree squirrels tend to live about 4-5 years, but cars (as many of us can testify) tend to shorten that length considerably. Disease and starvation beat out automobiles as vehicles (heh!) for death. Severe cold weather is handy at culling, too.

Random squirrel facts
• They can run 16.7 mph on flat ground
• They can swim, dog-paddle style, for short distances
• They are “seed predators” (cue scary music).
• They don’t hibernate, if you hadn’t noticed
• They are diurnal. When was the last time you saw a squirrel traipsing around at night?

I have alternately loved and hated squirrels. I used to hand feed a red squirrel at my maternal grandparent’s island home in Canada as a child. I also remember being about 14 years old and sneaking up behind a squirrel next to a silver maple in the front yard of my childhood home and pulling its tail.
I also remember a few times of cartoonishly chasing squirrels off of my backyard bird feeder before I invested in a baffle.
So, go out in the brisk weather, observe these familiar rodents. Pay attention to the arched pattern the body and tail of the fox squirrel as it hops across your lawn. Can you spot the red squirrel scurry atop your power lines to a tree? Are there more black varieties of gray squirrels than gray around your home?
Go out, come back and report.

I used a couple of good resources for this post. North American Tree Squirrels by Michael A. Steele and John L. Koprowski wrote a more “sciencey” book, but it is still readable by the educated reader. Squirrels: A Wildlife Handbook by Kim Long is lighter on the science and covers much of the folklore about squirrels. Together, you would probably have all the knowledge you need about squirrels aside from your own observations.

Challenge #4 Answered

Post-Halloween displayThe grey days of November are here in Michigan.  It’s been dry and cold for the most part, but we’re going way above average for a couple of days starting in December.  I was walking home from work about two weeks ago and smelled smoke, the sunlight was pale and cold, and that’s when I realized that that is the essence of November: cold, but with the promise of comfort and warmth from a fire somewhere.  Most of the birds around here now are the hardy year-round residents.  Insects can still be found, but only in ones and twos, and then only on days when the temperature rises above 50 degrees.  Squirrels are still active and deer can occasionally be spotted wandering the mean suburban streets, but late fall means a general slowdown of biodiversity.  Most of the trees are naked now, and most plants that are still green are invasive.

So aside from my own thoughts of quaint New England villages framed by flaming colors of hardwoods, November is quiet, introspective, and waiting patiently for the cleansing blanket of snow that might come during Advent or Christmas time.  November is seeing the last flocks of mallards and Canada geese flutter away.  November is crisp silence.

Challenge #4

Autumn is past mid-point here in the northern hemisphere and most of the color show is over in the Great Lakes; the grey days of November will be here to stay soon.  So, I’m going to shift the focus for this month instead of trying to identify species, though you should work to keep doing that, instead pay attention to the train of your thoughts when outside.  What does the crisp air make you think of or long for?  What feelings dominate you this time of year?  Go ahead and post any exciting species sightings, but also record thoughts and feelings that are native to you in November.  I trust you can think of more than turkey, pilgrims, and football.

Challenge #3 Answered

Y’know, it’s OK to post something about your trees; truly it is.  Anyway, my shagbark hickory is now naked.  The Siberian or Chinese elm is about 80% leafless; the American beech in the backyard has lost its crown (strange how that tree loses its leaves from the top down) and the remaining leaves are almost all copper-colored now.  I haven’t paid attention to the mulberry tree in the back, but that’s probably ready for winter now too.  We’ve seen many windy and cool days this fall which made up for such a dry summer.  I was pleasantly surprised at the plethora of color.

Oak leaves in my second backyard (captured mid-October).

So, what did you find?  Quick, before all the leaves are gone.