Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Red Squirrel and Butternuts

Today’s story begins last winter, when we first arrived in Pennsylvania. Eastern Pennsylvania winters have a different kind of cold from Western Washington winters, and one of the first things we did was go about securing some wood for the fireplace.

The friendly folks at Bradley Tree Experts were happy to deliver us cords of pre-split wood (since our stash of wood was back in WA keeping the neighbors warm). We dumped the wood loads next to the house under the pines, and then covered our piles with tarps to keep the rain, snow, and ice out.

After our righteous snow storm in February, things started to warm up, and we found ourselves with a tiny little pile of wood left from our last load that never made it on the fire. I think that for a while, we suspected we’d use it up, until that day came (as it does every spring) when you realize there will be no more fires until next season. Camouflaged as it was under a snuggly brown tarp (yeah, like we couldn’t see it), the little pile of leftovers remained cozy and dry.

Over the summer, I began to notice a lot of activity around the little pile, and the dogs were always excited to investigate. The grey squirrels loved to use it as a launching pad to the nearest pine trunk, and various birds and bunnies took refuge there from time to time. But in recent months, a new creature arrived on the scene: the red squirrel. Until this little guy showed up, we’d seen nothing but grey squirrels everywhere!

When the red headed stranger set up shop in the yard, he went straight for easy street, and commandeered the tarp-covered wood “pilette.” How this little red squirrel managed to push out the big grey squirrels, I’ll never know – but it may have something to do with its major attitude and bossy, boastful nittering.

Here is a little about the red squirrel from the PA Game Commission site. It seems to describe our friend perfectly:

Wildlife Notes: Squirrels By Chuck Fergus

"The red squirrel is sometimes called a chickaree or a pine squirrel, reflecting its preference for nesting in conifers. Behavior, feeding habits and denning practices are generally similar to those of gray and fox squirrels, although reds sometimes nest in holes at the base of trees. They enjoy eating the immature, green cones of white pine. Unlike fox and gray squirrels, reds do not bury nuts singly, preferring a large cache -- often in a hollow log -- for storing food."

Late July, I began to hear a strange noise on the driveway by the mystery tree. It took me a few days to learn that it was the sound of the mystery tree nuts thwapping the top of the truck, and the gravel driveway. All day long there’s be a constant music of nutty percussions, and I began to notice that the squirrels were actually pulling the nuts off and throwing them down. The nuts would cover the driveway in the morning, and then disappear in the afternoon.

It wasn’t until a couple weeks ago that I learned where they were all going: the red squirrel’s winter stash. I haven’t removed the tarp to see just how many s/he has, but I get the impression that this squirrel has about 50%+ of the tree’s produce tucked away like so many Easter eggs in, around, and under the tarp over the remains of last year’s firewood. He's even tucked a few in the pines' armpits, "just in case."

S/he’s been working so hard at this over the last couple months, that now I don’t have the heart to uproot it! All day long the red squirrel guards the nut pile. I’ve tried to get clear images for you, but as soon as I come close, up the tree it goes.

A few days ago, I found a freshly-fallen nut on the driveway. Carefully I placed it on the very top of the tarp, and went inside. About twenty minutes later, I heard the squirrel crying out! I watched it while it stared and barked at the nut for two days, before it finally was accepted into the horde with the others. (In fact, I think the nut was eaten owing to the husk fragments all over the top of the tarp today).

Looks like we’ll be needing a new tarp.

Epilogue: As for the mystery tree nuts, I think we now have a proper identification. I believe we have a Butternut (Juglans cinerea), sometimes called a white walnut. I’m basing my educated guess on the data I can find online and in my books when compared with leaves, bark, fuzziness, and fruits. The fruits matured into heavy, round, fuzzy-husked nuts.

Now if I could just get one of them open, I could tell you what they taste like! Of course... I'd have to pry one away from the red squirrel first.


  1. Cute story!

    BTW - I'm also from Western Washington (Longview).

  2. What a wonderful post and the photos are just lovely too.

    Huggs, G

  3. You're lucky. Butternut is a critically endangered species, disappearing across its range (basically, the Appalachians) due to a fungus of unknown origin. We used to have four here on the mountain, but they all died, including one right next to my house. Great tasting nuts and a beautiful wood.

  4. J'aime beaucoup ces photos ...
    Simples , naturelles , formes et couleurs s'harmonisent ...

  5. What a treat to have a red squirrel in your garden. The rufus nutters used to rule the treetops in England once, but now it's just the greys we see gadding about. And as for butternuts... how enlightening, I thought that word referred exclusively to a kind of squash. Well, if the name's anything to go by, I'm sure the nut will taste as delicious as the vegetable.

  6. Kasmira, thanks for visiting! The last time we were in Longview, we drove around and around trying to find the elusive “Squirrel Bridge” that was listed in the AAA tourbook. We must have passed through that circle ten times before I finally saw that huge squirrel statue… as it turns out, we were looking for some HUGE “SQUIRREL BRIDGE,” and when we finally spotted the little bridge, we had a serious laugh. Do you know if the squirrels actually use it?

    Geraldine, always a pleasure! It was a long story, but I just had to share – it was too silly not to!

    Dave, I was actually just reading about the fungus that has been plaguing the butternuts, and it made me want to run out and wrap my arms around ours (if only that kept it safe!). I really do want to find a way to capture a nut (without stealing from the squirrels) so I can taste one. By the by, what’s the best way to remove the green husks from nuts? With a nutcracker, or something else? Until I moved to PA, I never even realized that nuts grew green husks like this!!!

    Jean, merci mon ami! Je suis très heureuse que l'automne vient! Je ferai plus en plus des photos!

    Pollen Nation, I agree – I’m certain the nuts will be delicious (if I can only get one without stealing from the squirrely)! Back in Western Washington, we have a native Douglas' squirrel that is small and brown/black, which is also difficult to find with the big grey squirrels (and land development) pushing them out. We had a couple Douglas' squirrels living in the woods around our home in Seabeck, and I think that the reds here in PA remind me of them – talkative, territorial, active, and loads of fun to watch!

  7. Ah, yes, the Nutty Narrows. I've never seen a squirrel on it, but I've seen photos. Perhaps they were staged?

  8. What a fabulous story! Thanks for sharing it, and the pics!

    I've done the opposite from you; moved from central NY to central OR. We're high desert here, no colors, only Junipers. You are in for a real treat when the fall colors start appearing. Most local tv news/weather broadcasts even have little blurbs about when the colors will be at their peak in your area. Enjoy!

  9. Kasmira, now I have images of little squirrels being tied into place for a photo shoot! That just makes it all the more ridiculous!

    Michelle, welcome! Thanks for visiting! I haven't tried desert living before, but I hear that it's just beautiful! Still, it's hard to imagine living somewhere without lots of trees. :)

  10. I think the squirrel has earned the title Butternut. Ive never had a butternut but if it lives by its name we can get an idea.

  11. Cute! I once had a squirrel stash chestnuts in the body panels of an old beater I had. My mechanic, who discovered them, was quite amused!

  12. Hi there. I just wanted to mention that I've been to Longview (used to have family reunions there). That squirrel bridge has been there for many years. I have seen squirrels using it. It was always a highlight to look for the bridge. It's been 25 years atleast since I've been there.


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