I am sitting at my kitchen table enjoying my tea and toast and watching the best morning entertainment. Not on the telly, but outside the kitchen. The bird feeders are busy with chaffinches, blue tits, great tits, greenfinch, coal tit and siskens, while robins bob about on the ground underneath, chased by the greedy blackbird. As I watch there is a movement in the bushes behind the feeders and the birds take flight. But this is not an approaching predatory sparowhawk, but one of our regular visiting squirrels.
When most people in the UK talk about squirrels in their garden, they are referring to the non-native grey squirrels – and often referring to them as pests. Up here in the the Highlands of Scotland, we are still ‘grey-free’. Red squirrels are still fairly common in some parts, but still delightful to see for all that. I see them everyday at my workplace at my summer seasonal job, but had not seen them at home (on the Beauly Firth, west of Inverness) since last winter.
I’m delighted to see they’ve returned to the feeders we provide in our garden and I can sit and watch them as I eat my breakfast. Once the squirrels are settled on the feeder the birds soon ignore them and return to the seed feeder just one metre away from the peanuts. For the past couple of weeks I’ve seen one feeding on the bird peanut feeder or the squirrel nut box, but today I saw two at the same time. Strangely one went to the bird mesh feeder first – although why it would wish to dine hanging upside down and swinging about in the high winds is a puzzle to me. The second squirrel then hopped over to the nut box about one metre from its neighbour.
I know it is not good to feed them solely on peanuts as a diet rich in peanuts may cause calcium deficiency. Now that they are regular visitors to our garden feeders I will change the food in the squirrel feeder box. I’ll buy some hazelnuts to supplement any they find locally.
I’ll share my first wee video clips with you. Excuse the shaky camera for the first 45 seconds, I wanted to include this as I think the squirrel is funny when it peers over the side watching the wee chaffinches feeding on the ground, pecking the seed that has fallen from the bird feeders. There are two bird feeders (the peanut one, that the squirrel is on in the last 45 seconds) and a seed feeder to the left of the squirrel nut box. All the ‘stuff’ you see falling to the left on the bird peanut feeder is the wee coal tits tossing the seeds they don’t want on to the ground.
Red Squirrels have been present on the British Isles mainland and some of the offshore islands since the last ice age. Grey Squirrels were introduced from North America by the Victorians and from two pairs have spread to most of the UK. The Highlands of Scotland is one of the few parts of the UK where the red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) exists in the absence of the introduced American grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). The red squirrel is a priority UK Biodiversity Action Plan species. The most serious threat to the red squirrel is from the American grey squirrel. The grey is said to out-compete the red squirrel and can carry Squirrel Poxvirus (SQPV), which is deadly to red squirrels. There is an ongoing Highland Squirrel Survey which is working to map the extent of the still under-recorded Red squirrel population and to monitor for the appearance of Grey Squirrels in the region.
If you wish to read more about the red vs grey squirrel debate, there are hundreds of comments over at the BBC Autumnwatch Red Squirrel Debate.