Lively Douglas is the ‘Squirrel of Squirrels’

Author: Steve Ellis | 06/14/19
       

Douglas Squirrel

A Douglas Squirrel rests on a tree limb in Coupeville. Photo by Martha Ellis.

In late summer, seed cones begin raining down from local conifers. The trees aren’t shedding; it’s the work of the sprightly Douglas Squirrel.

These energetic creatures are well adapted to life in trees. Brown above and tawny-orange below, they’re 11-14 inches long, including the bushy tail. The tail can be held over the head and body as a sunscreen or shelter from rain. It’s used for balance as the squirrel scampers among the branches and can function as a parachute in a rare mishap. Sharp toenails in forepaws aid in clinging to bark. Hind feet can rotate up to 180 degrees, allowing headfirst travel down tree trunks.

Lively Douglas Squirrels leap from limb to limb, nipping off cones. In a minute’s time, they can cut down 12 Douglas-fir cones or 30 from Sitka spruce. Downed cones are stashed under a fallen log or in a hole dug in the forest floor. Cones may be stored for up to three years before the squirrel eats the seeds.

Squirrel larders are often raided by jays, sparrows and nuthatches. Deer mice and Townsend’s chipmunks also take advantage of this otherwise-inaccessible food source. Unretrieved cones eventually open, allowing seeds to germinate where “planted” by squirrels. A new generation of trees emerges.

The lively Douglas Squirrel serves as a forest guardian, issuing a repeated “Pe-oh” call when detecting a predator. If the danger is immediate, the squirrel lets out a raucous, rolling scream. Birds and mammals cue in to these calls, and even deer have been noted taking evasive action based solely on squirrel alarms.

Famed naturalist John Muir wrote this about Douglas Squirrels: “He is the squirrel of squirrels, flashing from branch to branch of his favorite evergreens, crisp and glossy and undiseased as a sunbeam. Give him wings and he would outfly any bird in the woods.” He knew his subject well.

Tree-planter, food-provider, sentinel – surely our forests would be poorer, less lively and certainly quieter without the ebullient Douglas Squirrel.

About the author: Steve Ellis is a noted naturalist from Coupeville.