Our area is host to several squirrels – western gray squirrel, eastern gray squirrel, fox squirrel and Douglas squirrel. Let’s take a look at the Douglas squirrel.
Unlike the western gray squirrel with its gray coat and white underbelly, the Douglas squirrel has reddish-brown to grayish brown on the backside in summer. Some of the hairs may be orange or black at the ends. Underneath, they are light to dark orange occasionally with bits of white.
They have a broad and bushy tail that is colored the same as their back with a black tip and the underside of the tail has a reddish-brown center and fades to black and then to light orange or white at the edges. Adults have a black stripe along the side that is lacking in juveniles. Winter coats are much grayer and the orange underneath is less visible.
Their tail serves many functions. It helps the squirrel keep balance when climbing up and down trees. It also serves as an umbrella protecting them from sunlight and rain. While nesting in winter, it becomes a blanket to keep them warm. And as another form of communication, the tail is a flag.
Douglas squirrels have lots of whiskers – above and below their eyes, on their noses and chins all which provide tactile perception of their surroundings. They also have excellent vision and hearing as well as a good sense of smell.
These squirrels are very vocal and use a variety of calls like “chir” or “burr” and sometimes an explosive “bauf bauf bauf.” Communication is used when disputing territory, during courtship and as a warning of danger.
Douglas squirrels eat a variety of foods. They are essential granivorous (eating grains) as pine seeds make up most of their diet. When available, they eat fungi, cambium of conifers, twigs, sap, leaves, buds, acorns, other nuts, mushrooms, fruits and berries. Occasionally, they also eat arthropods, birds’ eggs and nestlings. To prepare for winter, they cut green cones from the tops of trees caching them in a damp place to keep the seeds fresh. Mushrooms are cut and stored in the forks of trees to dry and provide more food for winter.
Their teeth grow rapidly. They constantly sharpen and wear down their teeth by chewing on twigs. The twigs also help clean and trim their teeth.
These are small, energetic squirrels, active during the day all year long. They are up at dawn and ready for bed at sunset. Most of the time they are collecting and storing pine cones for the winter.
Though springtime is when most Douglas squirrels are born, reproduction can occur from January until mid-August. Females generally have one litter per year with 1 to 8 young. Gestation is 36 to 40 days. The young are born blind and without hair and weigh just 13 to 18 grams. By 18 days old fur covers the body and eyes open between 26 to 36 days. The young will stay in the nest with their mother until they are one-half to two-thirds of an adult in size. By mid-July to early August it is time to leave the nest but they remain in close contact with the mother. After weaning is complete around 9 weeks, they become more independent but the family stays together through the end of the year. By the next summer, the young Douglas squirrel is ready to reproduce.
Douglas squirrels are found in conifer forests along the Pacific coast of North America. Summertime, they build nests for sleeping of twigs, mosses, lichens and shredded bark. Occasionally, they will use abandoned bird’s nests. You will find these nests in forks of trees or further out on sturdier limbs. Wintertime, to keep warm, they build a nest in tree crevices, deserted woodpecker nests or below ground under their food cache.
In our area, we have a subspecies of Douglas squirrels: Tamiasciurus douglasii albolimbatus. These squirrels are particularly sassy according to our rehabbers. They have behaviors a bit different than most tree squirrels including monogamy, caching food in only one place, and burrowing down underneath the snow during winter so they can get up to their middens of food even with several feet of snow on top of them.
John Muir devoted an entire chapter in his classic, The Mountains of California, to the Douglas squirrel. He wrote:
“He is, without exception, the wildest animal I ever saw,--a fiery, sputtering little bolt of life, luxuriating in quick oxygen and the woods’ best juices.”