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A Douglas’s Squirrel sitting on a branch. Photo: National Park Service

In his “Wilderness Essays,” John Muir said that the Douglas’s Squirrel “…is the most influential of the Sierra animals, quick mountain vigor and valor condensed, purely wild…”

And a couple of weeks ago, while my family and I camped in Kings Canyon National Park, I got to see how some of this influence is wielded.

In the early morning, I spent a bit of time wandering through the forest around the campground. As I was exploring, and watching Mountain Chickadees and Brown Creepers and Williamson’s Sapsuckers and White-headed Woodpeckers, I heard a thud of something hitting the ground close to me. I paused and then heard another thud. I looked up and high above my head I saw a Douglas’s Squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii) moving through the branches of a pine tree.

The forests of Kings Canyon National Park are filled with Douglas’s Squirrels! Photo: Aaron N.K. Haiman

The squirrel was moving from branch to branch checking the various cones. It would climb out to the tips of the branches where the cones grow and carefully and quickly assess each cone to come to a decision on whether or not it was ready to be harvested. If it was ripe enough, the squirrel nibbled away any pine needles blocking the base of the cone, and would then chew through the stem of the cone.

Once it had the cone off the branch, the cone would fall from the squirrel’s mouth and plummet to the ground. At first, I thought that the squirrel had accidently dropped the cone. However, after watching this process repeat a couple of times, I realized the squirrel was intentionally dropping the cones, and attentively watching where they fell. After observing the fall of a cone, the squirrel would scamper to the next cone.

I watched this process repeat again and again for over forty-five minutes. The squirrel was very strategic in how it went about its harvest. It was clearly working its way down the tree from highest branch to lowest. It would run out a branch to check the cones on it, harvest the cones that it wanted, then run back towards the trunk. Then it would jump to the next lowest branch and repeat the check-and-harvest process. In this way, it systematically checked every branch on the tree.

In the time I spent watching it, this squirrel must have harvested and dropped at least twenty cones. In that time, it also took a break for a few minutes to stretch out on a branch and rest, it took a few shorter breaks to groom its fur, and it spent a bit of time calling out into the forest. I figured that once the squirrel had enough food down on the ground, it would come down and feast, but it never did. I had to carry on with my day, so I left the Douglas’s Squirrel to it’s.

When I returned home, I read up a bit on this harvesting behavior, and it turns out that my assumption that the squirrel would eat the fallen cones was wrong. Douglas’s Squirrels do harvest large numbers of cones, but they are for winter storage! Once the squirrel I was watching was done harvesting cones, it was probably going to come down to ground level and begin hiding all those cones away in various locations so that the squirrel can come back and dig them out once the snow is covering the ground and other food sources are scare.

Forests filled with, and shaped by, Douglas’s Squirrels. Photo: Aaron N.K. Haiman

And this is where a big chunk of that influence comes in because the squirrels never make it back to eat every cone that they stash. These uneaten cones, and the seeds they contain, are where new trees sprout, so by hiding cones and then leaving them, these squirrels are shaping the forest of the future! That is some serious influence!

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