Nature: Red squirrels can eat poisonous mushrooms

Even though our deciduous trees look stark and naked now, they are certainly not dead!

Even in the summer they have already begun their next year’s leaves and flowers. These are miniaturized and hidden in the scale-covered buds. In late summer the trees keep these incipient leaves and flowers from growing. At the same time, however, the trees mature this year’s seeds and fruits.

Preparations for the following year are already going on while this year’s cycle is being completed. It is all quite amazing. Even a late-winter thaw will not fool the tree into opening leaves and flowers prematurely. Herbaceous plants as well as woody trees are ready all winter for the coming of spring. We humans all hope we are ready for the coming winter!

As winter brings colder days and nights and snow, we keep adding more layers of clothing to keep warm. Birds that stay here for the winter do much the same. Their plumage is duller, less conspicuous, denser and more closely interlocked.

Ducks have a downy undergrowth preventing water and the cold from getting in. If sea birds get oil on their feathers, this protection is gone and the birds die. Underwear for furry wildlife takes the form of very short hairs that sprout along the roots of the bigger true fur.

Insects are cold-blooded so they need to find the right temperatures for surviving a cold winter. Very cold weather makes insects adapt in their own special way.

Insects for the most part do not migrate north or south as birds do. They do, however, migrate up and down. They go from living above ground to living beneath a fallen log, down into a rocky crevice, or deep in a pile of leaves.

Water insects go into the deep water or into the muddy bottoms of a pond. Still other insects survive the winter as eggs in a neat sac or case made by the parents. Some insects even escape the cold by crawling between the woolly leaves of the mullein plant, a favorite plant of mine.

This time of year seems to invigorate the red squirrels living near me. These little mammals defend their winter caches vigorously against other squirrels and against birds, for their lives depend upon what they have cached away in large underground locations. These caches may contain a bushel or more of food — including nuts, acorns and seeds from coniferous trees. Mushrooms are stored under loose bark or in the crotch of a tree. Red squirrels even eat the poisonous fly amanita mushroom, as the squirrels are apparently able to detoxify or alter the mushroom’s poisonous ingredients.

The beautiful red cardinal now living here all year long is always a treat to see and especially on a snowy morning. Neighbors of mine have one visiting their feeder daily.

When we moved to this island in 1972 they were seasonal birds, but now in 2018 they do not migrate and are seen year-round along with the mockingbirds. Tufted titmice are also being seen more regularly on this island. In former years, they were only occasional visitors.

Tufted titmice are small, perky birds. They seem to be constantly on the move and are busy with important activities. They are not commonly seen here but in recent years sightings of them have been more frequent. If they are in your neighborhood, you may see them traveling about and taking the leadership role with several chickadees, kinglets and warblers.

At your winter feeder they especially like nuts and seeds. I definitely recommend that you first listen to a bird recording of them online so you’ll know them when you hear them. The Cornell University Bird Department has excellent recordings.

One chilly day I passed several mourning doves drinking and bathing in the melted water next to the road. In spite of snow and cold temperatures, the birds were splashing and preening. If the winter snows are not too crusty on our island, the doves will winter well, as they feed on grass and weed seeds and any berries they can find. In periods of freezing, they seek out feeders. Their feet are not strong enough to scratch down through crusted snow. Some mourning doves migrate, others stay here.

In the air, mourning doves are quite special to watch. These birds bend their wings back after each wing stroke and their long pointed tails stream elegantly behind them.

If you are close enough to hear them take off, their wings make a whistling sound. The call of the mourning dove is a plaintive “coo-coo-coo-coo,” rising and falling in pitch and repeated many times.

You probably will not hear the call in the winter, but as spring comes closer, it is a nice sound to hear.

Send any questions, photos or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.


Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.
Ruth Grierson

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