The sad spring saga of Sassy squirrel

cape-may-warbler-i77a5989-maria-de-bruyn-2resSpring has come early to North Carolina, leading to some early bird migration (like this Cape May warbler, Setophaga tigrina, on its way North), avian courtship and nest building, as well as spring blossoms already emerging in profusion. My garden has seen some lovely flowers, both cultivated and wild: daffodils (Narcissus), crocuses (Crocus), winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum), henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) and lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis).

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My camellias ( Camellia) bloomed in much greater profusion than ever before.

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The shrubs and trees also sent out their buds weeks “ahead of schedule” – since the past month was the warmest recorded February in this area, my plants advanced their springtime blossoming, including the serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), viburnums, dogwoods (Cornus kousa and Cornus florida) and common elderberry (Sambucus nigra).

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My new blueberry bushes burgeoned with delicate little flowers, but the past two nights I had to cover them up so that they wouldn’t shrivel up as the temperatures dropped below freezing.

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It wasn’t only the plant and bird life responding to the unusually changing season, though, as I discovered when I finally noticed the altered pillow on my front porch rocking chair. I first saw that the cloth covering the pillow had been torn; upon closer examination, I saw that the pillow had been opened up with its filling tufting up in places.

 

 

eastern-gray-squirrel-i77a0093-maria-de-bruyn-resWhen I began watching the rocker in addition to the bird feeders, I discovered the culprit – an industrious Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), whom I named Sassy as she shows no fear, just a little caution.

Sassy is quite bold, coming up onto the porch even when I’m seated there. She keeps an eye on me but goes about her business in a calm and confident mood. This was also the case for her nest building activities. She perched on the pillow and used her teeth to tear out the insides.

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She then manipulated the tufts with her paws and teeth to form them into neat little oblong packages that she could easily transport in her mouth.

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Sometimes, she added some dried leaves to the mixture.

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When her mouth was filled with enough material, she left to transport it to the nest that she was constructing – as it turned out, high in a loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) in a neighbor’s front yard. As I followed behind her, she stayed aware of my movements.

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Then she crossed the street and scurried up the tree, where she deposited her “mattress stuffing” among the leaves and other materials lining the nest.

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Since Sassy was so very industrious and the pillow was no longer salvageable, I left it out for her. She returned for several days, systematically dismantling her found source of nest material and carrying off her little woolly trophies.

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When the stuffing began to disperse with the wind, I finally gathered it up and threw out what was left, figuring she had had plenty of manmade contributions to her home.

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Then a couple days later, I was dismayed on her behalf to see that the new neighbors had decided to remove the tree where her nest was located. The landscapers said Sassy’s nest was not a factor in their decision; they just thought the tree was in the way. I watched with sadness as Sassy’s tree was dismantled and her nest plunged to the ground.

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I didn’t see where Sassy was during this event but am sure she was watching from some other vantage point. I felt badly for her – all her innovative and dedicated work was destroyed. Of course, people lose their homes, too, to flooding, fires, tornadoes, etc.  and that is horrible. But I still regretted that this hard-working mammal had lost her home as well.

I presume Sassy has been building a new nest elsewhere. And given her boldness, I’m fairly certain that she was the squirrel I saw yesterday afternoon who had decided that she likes dried mealworms.

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As my feline companion Moasi watched from her cat tree perch in the living room, Sassy was busy on the other side of the window chowing down on the worms in a new window feeder that I had actually bought for the Carolina wrens and chickadees, who often perch on the chair in front of the window.

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Sassy didn’t seem to mind Moasi watching her and she wasn’t fazed when I approached either. It was only when I knocked on the window that she finally descended to the porch and then left for the yard. I like to think that Sassy has made a new home and is now busy getting extra nutrition for the babies to come. And spring continues to unfold with temperatures varying from 24 to 70 degrees and above!

A fruity buffet for the birds!

summer tanager profile IMG_4040©Maria de BruynIn front of a dog park in the small town of Carrboro, NC, there stands a small serviceberry tree, also known as a shadbush or sarvisberry (Amelanchier). This particular specimen has several trunks and was heavily laden with pretty white flowers in the early spring. These turned into bright red berries in late spring, forming a very bountiful buffet for the resident birds and some other wildlife, too!

The variety of species visiting this tree was delightful and led me to go back on several mornings and evenings to observe.

cedar waxwing IMG_1675©Maria de Bruyn2 rescedar waxwing IMG_2159©Maria de Bruyn res

The cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) were there in pairs and groups, some of them sweetly feeding one another!

Northern cardinal IMG_4073©Maria de Bruyn2 resNorthern cardinal IMG_2078©Maria de Bruyn2 res

The male and female Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) were also huge fans of this tree, returning over and over to have their fill.

Eastern bluebird IMG_4543©Maria de Bruyn reschipping sparrow IMG_2268©Maria de Bruyn2 res

A couple birds seemed only to alight in the tree, not really partaking, like the Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) and chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina). However, those sparrows, like the American robin (Turdus migratorius), might have been just checking out the wares before they dropped to the ground under the tree to enjoy a few berries. That surprised me – especially, the robins whom I have considered to be mainly insectivores and worm-eaters.

chipping sparrow IMG_1626©Maria de Bruyn2 res American robin IMG_4531©Maria de Bruyn res

One day, a trio of Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) arrived. I thought for sure that they would be stripping the branches clean but they hopped around the tree, sampling here and there. During several visits to the serviceberry, that was the only time I saw them climb into the tree for a snack.

Eastern gray squirrel IMG_2191©Maria de Bruyn2 resEastern gray squirrel IMG_2116©Maria de Bruyn2 res

Other birds seemed to visit only briefly, like the Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) and the tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor).

Northern mockingbird IMG_4164©Maria de Bruyn2 res tufted titnouse IMG_2122©Maria de Bruyn res

red-bellied woodpecker IMG_1633©Maria de Bruyn2 resThe red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), on the other hand, was a very frequent visitor – coloring oh so nicely with the host tree! This bird seemed to be also storing some berries for later consumption in the bark of a tree?

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red-bellied woodpecker IMG_2007©Maria de Bruyn2 res

Serviceberries are promoted for gardens as a source of delicious fruit for human beings. They are said to be wonderful in jam, pies, ice cream, syrup for pancakes and or in alcoholic drinks. Raw, they taste a little like blueberries with a nice sweet tang.

 

They were obviously a great hit with a pair of summer tanagers (Piranga rubra). The male colored nicely with the fruit he was eating; he is an example of the only bird in North America that is entirely red!

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The yellow female stood out as she ate berry after berry.

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Cedar apple rust IMG_9380© Maria de BruynAfter watching this spectacle, I have now decided to find one of these shrubs for my own yard. They are unfortunately susceptible to cedar apple rust (Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae) which I have in neighboring cedar trees; it doesn’t seem to hurt the cedars but may account for the fact that the apples in my apple tree stay very small even if I haven’t seen signs of the rust on the apple tree leaves. Hopefully, it won’t be a problem as it would be really nice to see the birds at a serviceberry buffet here at home in years to come!