Squirrel martial arts

Warning:  Some of these photos might be upsetting, read on at your own risk.

From time to time I see badly injured red squirrels, like this one, which actually seemed to be carrying on as usual despite the loss of one eye:


I have no way of knowing what did it, and I have tended to assume it was a fox.

But if you watch the squirrels closely their squabbles can get pretty aggressive. They are very short sharp encounters, over in a second or so, and very hard to photograph. Look at these two squaring off:


And then admire this karate kick, exactly one second later:


It is not hard to imagine a kick like that taking out an eye, especially given those claws:


Or a good kick could take out an ear: this squirrel has the equivalent of a boxer’s cauliflower ear from some old injury:


This one has injured a finger in a fight:


The squirrel with the eye injury has now been attacked again and has what look like even worse injuries, although it was running around and eating as if it were unscathed.


Defending yourself with only one eye must put you at a significant disadvantage against a predator, or indeed in fights like these.



“Red in tooth and claw” does seem pretty appropriate.  And just so you know, I googled the source of this phrase,  and it comes not from Shakespeare, but from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam A. H. H., 1850.

Sidebar! I once had a run-in with my son’s third grade teacher, who sent him home with a poem to memorize,  written by a certain Alfred Lloyd Tennyson ……


Comparing bills

I’ve been pondering this question: The kingfisher and the bluejay have quite different diets, and yet their beaks are not dissimilar. Why??

It started when I was deep in the woods, and saw some movement in a tiny stream. It was a bluejay having a bath (bad photo, sorry!):


It flew up to recover its dignity and its plumage:


The day before I had seen a Belted Kingfisher:


So now I had two photos, of pretty similar beaks:

The kingfisher of course eats fish, and this beak is well adapted for grabbing (or if necessary spearing) a slippery fish. But bluejays eat mainly seeds, so why is their beak this shape? The cardinal, a true seed-eater, has a beak like this, designed for crushing seeds:


I think the answer lies in the fact that the bluejay is in fact an omnivore.  It also eats insects (about 20% of its diet), and even occasionally small dead or injured vertebrates like baby birds. A favorite food is acorns, and they hold them in their feet while pecking them open, so the beak has to be sharp and strong enough to penetrate an acorn.  Here is a good video showing how they do it:


To do this, the bill has to be pretty sturdy, and the bluejay’s bill is definitely sturdier than the kingfisher’s, which would be unlikely to stand up to this kind of demand. In fact, it is not so different from a woodpecker’s, as you can see here:

DSC05124After all, hammering at acorns is a mini-version of hammering at trees.

Small but feisty frogs

The fully-grown spring peeper below, sitting on a hydrangea leaf, is 25mm long. It is nowhere near being the smallest frog in the world, which is Paedophryne amanuensis, which at 8 mm long is only about 1/3 of the size of this peeper..


Here it is closer up, with a centimeter measure to show you its size, about 2.5cm.


DSC04396And even closer


Its Latin name Pseudacris crucifer comes from the cross-shaped marking on its back, rather broken up on this particular individual. Its tiny fingers are translucent, and large toe pads help it grip while climbing.


It is a tree frog, but goes to the water to breed in the spring. It has a deafeningly loud chorus, amplified by a large throat pouch, which makes sleeping in our guest bedroom overlooking the pond quite difficult.

They are insectivores, though this one seems rather intimidated by this amorous pair of large Ambush Bugs.


In the winter they hibernate under tree bark or leaf mould, and can tolerate the freezing  of their body fluids down to -8C. I’m not quite sure how they survive a Maine winter, since it routinely goes well below that!

Hail, Caesar

This mushroom well deserves its name as the imperator of the fungus world.


Amanita caesarea blazes in the forest, six inches tall and imposing. It starts like a tiny scarlet Easter egg: this one has been dined on delicately by a rodent, who has eaten it exactly as I was taught to eat a soft-boiled egg:


It pushes skywards and begins to open out:


And then it reaches its parasol-like final stage:


Its decline is often brutal (“Et tu, Brute?”). Either it is eaten:


Or a secondary fungus, Syzygies megalocarpus*,  colonizes it and creates a sort of mad Einsteinium Groucho Marx hairdo:


Although it comes from the Amanita family, many of which are highly poisonous, Caesar’s mushrooms are supposed to be delicious, but I have never plucked up the nerve to eat a mushroom this color (though I’m not sure why it scares me, since I happily eat all sorts of orange food, from carrots to tangerines to lobsters. )

PS Some technical stuff: the skirt-like frill round the stalk is the remnant of the partial veil that used to cover the gills when the mushroom was young.  The white cup at the base is called the volva, from which the young mushroom emerges. Sometime it is under the ground and can only be seen by digging down. In most amanitas, pieces of this get stuck to the cap, creating small white patches, but in Caesar’s mushroom that usually doesn’t happen, though in the big photo at the very top of this post there is in fact a piece left.

  • Thanks to Parker Veitch for the ID.

The sad savage beauty of the Barred Owl

Barred Owls, Strix varia, are fairly common here, but since I am diurnal I rarely see them. I have a camera trap on my big hickory tree, and one came several nights in a row, probably hoping to catch one of the flying squirrels that live in my tree. Here he or she is:


The wings are barred, but the name actually comes from the vertical bars on the chest, which will see in some later photos.


One night, I got a movie:


Occasionally they can be seen in the daytime.  This one perched on a pine tree next to my son’s house near Boston a couple of years ago. It is the only American owl with brown (as opposed to yellow) eyes.


They hunt in wooded areas, and if a road runs through woodland they are sometimes hit by cars.  Sadly, we found this one last week on a small lane overhung by trees near the lake.


It had no apparent injuries , but when we moved it off the road it was clear its neck was broken.


It had fully feathered legs, and the most fearsome talons and rough leathery feet to help it grip.:


Such savage beauty, like all raptors.

PS Don’t confuse the Barred Owl with the Barn Owl! The US Barred Owl weighs from 0.5Kg – 1Kg. By comparison, the UK Barn owl, Tyto alba, is smaller, weighing 0.2 – 0.7Kg, and of course much whiter!



Adjidaumo, the velveteen squirrel

American red squirrels, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus, look like russet velveteen plush toys:


But in fact they are very aggressive. They have formidable teeth and claws:

Red squirrelDSC03227

Their feet are interesting too, with thick calloused pads on the palm as well as the fingers:

Red squirrel

Sometimes you can see a wounded squirrel like the one below. It had identical wounds on both sides of its muzzle. I do not know if another squirrel did it, or whether it was chased by the fox that is hanging around my garden. The second photo shows the same squirrel, with the wound healed:

Red squirrelRed squirrel

The video below shows typical squirrels squabbling over territory and food; as you will hear they are extremely noisy :

In Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha, the squirrel is called Adjidaumo. 
This is an Ojibwa word literally meaning "mouth-foremost", because 
squirrels descend trees head first. Here is a short excerpt from the 

At the stern sat Hiawatha, 
With his fishing-line of cedar; 
In his plumes the breeze of morning 
Played as in the hemlock branches ; 
On the bows, with tail erected, 
Sat the squirrel, Adjidaumo ; 
In his fur the breeze of morning 
Played as in the prairie grasses. 


And the squirrel, Adjidaumo, 
Frisked and chattered very gayly, 
Toiled and tugged with Hiawatha 
Till the labour was completed. 

Then said Hiawatha to him, 
" O my little friend, the squirrel, 
Bravely have you toiled to help me ; 
Take the thanks of Hiawatha, 
And the name which now he gives you ; 
For hereafter and for ever 
Boys shall call you Adjidaumo, 
Tail-in-air the boys shall call you !
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