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Fur color is highly variable, red squirrels in different parts of their range can look quite different. Coat color changes between summer and winter as well. The fur on their back is usually brown or olive-red in color. During the summer, a black stripe runs along their side. The belly is white or cream color. The tail is often edged with white. There are white bands encircling their large, black eyes. The tail is not as thick or bushy as other North American tree squirrels. They are well adapted for climbing and running through trees with compact, muscled bodies, strong claws, and powerful hind limbs.
Red squirrels are solitary, diurnal animals that are active all year. Their peak activity times are at dawn and in the late afternoon. They den in old woodpecker holes, tree hollows, or any other small crevice near their home range. In the northern part of their range, red squirrels often spend the winter in a system of underground tunnels. Red squirrels often migrate if their local food supply runs low. During these migrations, they are able to cross water and are good swimmers. Red squirrels have keen senses of smell, sight, and hearing. They are very vocal and loudly scold intruders in their home range. Vocalizations consist of rattles, screeches, growls, buzzes, and chirps.
Red squirrels are not picky eaters. They consume seeds, fruit, nuts, bark, buds, shed antlers, reptiles, insects, tree sap, pine cones, fungi (including mushrooms that are poisonous to humans), eggs, young birds, mice, and young rabbits. However, red squirrels eat primarily the seeds of conifer trees. They may eat up to 2/3 of the pine seed crop in an area each year. Red squirrels store many seeds and nuts underground, in piles, or under rocks for the winter. They are able to relocate these buried seeds 12 inches underground and 13 feet below snow with their tremendous sense of smell. Many seed stockpiles are not recovered, however, making red squirrels a key tree planter and seed disperser.
Red squirrels are solitary, but pair for mating in February and March. Females usually breed when they are one year old. Three to seven young are born after a gestation period of 36 to 40 days. The young are born blind and hairless, weighing about a 1/4 ounce. They are weaned at about five weeks but remain with the female until adult size. The young become independent during the first winter. In warmer climates, there are two breeding seasons, in the late winter and mid-summer. In colder climates, there is only one which begins at the spring thaw from mid-January to mid-February. Birth occurs after 33 to 35 days gestation, in a lined den or tree hollow. Litter sizes can range from 1 to 8 young, 2 to 5 is average. Young develop quickly and are weaned seven to eight weeks after birth. At 40 days old, they leave the nest. Juvenile mortality is high with owls, hawks, and pine martens taking many. About 25% survive to adulthood, which is achieved at one year old.
Red squirrels are common and not currently threatened.