Tunnel roads under the snow

by Sandy Garland

I’m always intrigued by the tunnels we find at the FWG in winter. They are undoubtedly created by red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) that remain active during the winter and must scurry around visiting their food caches.

Entrances to two tunnels at the base of a spruce tree - one just to the left and behind the trunk, the other directly to the right of the trunk

Entrances to two tunnels at the base of a spruce tree – one just to the left and behind the trunk, the other directly to the right of the trunk

The tunnels must lead to these caches, now buried under a foot or more of snow. Rather than run along the top of the snow, then dig down to the food, the squirrels minimize the time they spend on the surface – who wouldn’t – by digging from the base of their favourite tree through the snow to a food cache. This technique also allows them to keep the stored food a secret from other species.

In the Backyard Garden, squirrels create a maze of tunnels, often with vertical entrances that they pop their head out of to check who’s around before emerging. If the snow is deep, we can see tunnels on either side of a footpath that the squirrel has chosen to cross rather than dig through the packed snow.

More about red squirrels at the FWG
Photo gallery of red squirrels – cute alert! but also many photos showing nests, food caches, and the habits of these busy little creatures
Video showing a red squirrel’s tunnel-making technique

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Roosting boxes

In spring 2010, the Blackburn Hamlet cub pack offered to make bird boxes or feeders for us. We asked if they would consider building roosting boxes instead as we wanted to know whether these much larger containers would be used over the winter, presumably by birds seeking shelter from the weather.

roosting-box-RedSquAccording to Shaw Creek Bird Supplies (where we found plans for the boxes), “Any backyard favorites that typically nest in boxes — bluebirds, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and small woodpeckers — may seek refuge in [a roosting box]. Roosting boxes differ from nest boxes in several important ways. A good roost box is designed to prevent the birds’ body heat from escaping, so, unlike a nest box, it lacks ventilation holes. Also, its entrance hole is near the bottom of the box so the rising warmth doesn’t escape.”

At the end of October 2010, the cubs and their leaders installed seven beautiful roosting boxes at various sites around the FWG. All were attached to trees.

The little red squirrel at the left wasted no time staking a claim to one box a few days later. He made multiple trips bringing mouthfuls of leaves and fluff that he busily stripped from dog-strangling vine plants.

Chickadees also checked out the boxes in early winter 2010, not long after they were installed (chickadees also use bird boxes for roosting in winter).

Fall 2011

roosting-boxAll roosting boxes are being used by squirrels, mostly red, but at least one in the ash woods (photo at right) is used by a grey.

Although the boxes are not used by birds as expected, this is not a bad thing! There aren’t many squirrel-sized cavities at the FWG, as our trees are not large enough, so the roosting boxes are a nice generous size for them and they may be less inclined to squeeze themselves into bird boxes.

2012

When the Cubs again asked if they could build something for us, we decided to try “squirrel boxes” in hopes that our red squirrels would leave the roosting boxes to the birds and occupy shelters designed especially for them. We’re hoping to get these new boxes installed soon and will let you know whether the plan succeeds.