This year with the abundant crop of mushrooms in the woods, the Red Squirrels are taking advantage of the opportunity. I’d recently heard that Red Squirrels will take mushrooms and stash them in trees to dry and preserve them for winter.
Last weekend while out in the woods with some friends, I watched a Red Squirrel carry something out to the end of a Balsam branch and leave it there. I pulled the Balsam branch down and sure enough there was a small mushroom.
Later on we found another mushroom, this one much bigger, tucked behind a branch.
Red Squirrels have a tolerance for toxic mushrooms so just because a Squirrel has cached a mushroom doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily edible for us humans. Red Squirrels are known to gather and eat the poisonous Fly Amanita Mushroom. There are various theories out there as to why a Squirrel can digest toxic mushrooms. The theories range from a short digestive tract to tolerant livers to extra kidneys for filtering toxins.
The only Squirrel species we have up here in Crane Lake is the Red Squirrel, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus, or the “American” Red Squirrel, not to be confused with the Eurasian Red Squirrel which is not the same species. Gray Squirrels which are so common in greater Minnesota do not venture this far north into our dominantly coniferous forest. Another name for the Red Squirrel is Pine Squirrel for that is what they eat – lots of pine and spruce cones.
Right now in the fall, the rambunctious Red Squirrels are scurrying around the forest getting ready for winter. They don’t really hibernate in the winter, they do come out of their lairs on warmer days to look for food and maybe visit bird feeders, but when it’s really cold they’ll stay holed up and eat out of their cache.
Red Squirrels are preyed upon by Lynx, Bobcat, Coyote, Great Horned Owls, Goshawks, Pine Martens, Fox, Wolves, and Weasels. However, predation on adult Red Squirrels is thought to be relatively low compared to other mammals living in the North (e.g., snowshoe hares). Some cabin owners don’t take kindly to Red Squirrels as they can be destructive and take up residence in seasonally vacant cabins. Even with plenty of predators, Red Squirrel populations seem to be thriving in northern Minnesota.
Next time you’re out in the woods look for the mushrooms that are tucked away in the trees by these crafty little creatures.