Friday, November 03, 2006

The Chickaree and the Juniper Berries

I was walking in the far field, and by the big red cedar near the apple tree I heard a red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus, écureuil roux, chickaree) scold fiercely, once. I couldn't see it at that moment, and it didn't sound again, so I forgot about it and went back to peering into the now much more open shrubbery looking for kinglets (last seen October 30: ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula, Roitelet à couronne rubis)), watching the robins, and listening to the chickadees. I then noticed an audible munching coming from the other side of the red cedar. I tried to peer through the branches, and could just make out a reddish shape. I'd forgotten about the squirrel, and was wondering if a robin could possibly be making that much noise eating (I think not). I walked carefully around to see this scene.

red squirrel eating red cedar berries
According to this article in the journal Ecology (full article only available through library subscriptions to the journal), the fruit of the common juniper (Juniperus communis) and red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) are important food sources for red squirrels, as well as a number of birds. The article is about seed dispersal: while the birds eat the fruit whole, and "disperse" the seeds later, the squirrels scrape off the fruit and just eat the seed inside--hence the noise of the operation.

I stayed for several minutes watching, and moving up slowly, a squirrel gobbling the seeds like there was no tomorrow. It would tear off a laden branch tip, hold it in its front paws and just demolish it, cast it aside and tear off another. I finally got close enough to shift it: it let loose one scold, and then just moved down into the tree a little and continued to dine.

Grapes were great this year too, and this squirrel was within paw's reach of a great many ripe, sweet (much sweeter now, after a few frosts) wild grapes, but ignored them in favour of the red cedar berries. Takes all kinds.

squirrel surrounded by red cedar berries and wild grapes
Lush grapes in easy reach, ignored

All aboard the Friday Ark!


Duncan said...

Are those wild grapes native Pamela, and are they good for humans to eat?

Pamela Martin said...

Yes, they're native, Vitis labrusca in its uncultivated form. It is used as rootstock for more delicate grapes, and has also been bred to produce a number of cultivated varieties, e.g., Concord and Niagara. The wild ones are small, don't have a very high flesh to seed ratio, and are pretty tart until, as I've learned recently, they've gone through some frosts. But I've sampled them at many stages. And they can be used for wine and jelly--I've got a bag in the freezer that I collected earlier in the season, waiting to be made into jelly.

Anonymous said...

Great photos and observations, Pamela!

Cathy said...

What a precious picture!

Granny J said...

I am suffering from squirrel envy! We have lovely squirrels in the Arizona mountains. But my neighborhood is a cat & dog neighborhood, hence not a single squirrel, tho I've seen them as close as 3 blocks away! Those are great pictures!

Robin K said...

Just jumping in to say that I made my first batch of wild grape jelly this summer and it came out just great! You need to pick a lot of grapes but it was well worth it.