Red Squirrel Tracks
I’ve been getting lots of questions about these tracks over the past week. I can understand why: they are not only very common on PEI, but they can also be surprisingly deceptive! Let’s take a closer look at tracks and trails from our Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus).
With clear imprints you can see the characteristic traits of Squirrel tracks (Photo 1). Like Snowshoe Hare*, Squirrels land with their hind feet ahead of their front feet as shown here. However, there are three key differences between Squirrel and Hare tracks.
(*I featured Snowshoe Hare tracks in a recent blog post, which you can find using the search tool if you are interested).
First is size: the hind foot of a Squirrel will leave a track about 2.5 to 5 cm long (one or two inches); for Hares, it will be 10 to 15 cm (four to six inches). An average Squirrel track (all four feet) will be roughly the length of your index finger, while a Hare track will be about twice the length of your entire hand. Second is how the front feet land. With Squirrels, they’ll usually be side by side as shown here. With Hares, they’re normally staggered. Finally, it’s the feet themselves. Squirrels have five toes on each foot, whereas Hares have five on the front feet and four on the hind. Squirrels also have individual, round palm pads and heel pads, unlike the larger, fused palm pads found in Hares (and most of our other wildlife).
Even if there aren’t clear imprints, Squirrel tracks can be identified by their pattern. The “classic” Squirrel gait (Photo 2, left) is obvious, but it’s not always that easy. Some of the other variations shown in Photo 2 are commonly mistaken for a single large ‘paw print’ rather than four smaller feet. Squirrels can bound quite a distance (Photo 3), further giving the impression that a larger animal left the tracks. With a little practice, you’ll be able to easily identify all the variations as Squirrel.
Squirrels are common across the Island, especially where there’s Spruce, Pine, or Fir. They’ll eat seeds (as those with bird feeders know all too well!) and feast on conifer cones as if they were corn-on-the-cob. Apples, berries, and nuts are also popular menu items, as are fungi. As I described in an earlier post (Red Squirrels: Caching Mushrooms), Squirrels carefully park all sorts of mushrooms in Spruce trees around my property to dry them for winter storage.
Squirrels are not vegetarians though and won’t pass up a meal of bird eggs or nestlings. One of my favourite encounters was while leading a UPEI biology class on a field trip back in the 1990s. We came upon a Red Squirrel happily munching on a Robin nestling. It had already eaten the head (best part!) and was working its way down the body. I had a pretty good idea which students had a future in biology by their reactions.
Squirrel tracks are easy to find and to learn, which is a great way to get to know PEI untamed!