First Recent Vineyard Record for American Red Squirrel
Polly Bassett looked out her window on September 26th and noticed that a gray squirrel feeding on seed at her bird feeder had an unusual companion: a smaller, reddish squirrel. Being a regular observer of wildlife on the island, Polly knew this was not a typical sighting. The next morning, she posted an image of the two squirrels to the Vineyard Habitat Network Facebook page, noting she thought the smaller visitor was a red squirrel. Wildlife experts concurred that she did indeed have an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) – as far as we know, the first verified Vineyard sighting of this species in recent history. The species was only previously known to occur on the island from remains found in Native American middens. Polly mentioned that her neighbor had also seen a red squirrel; it is not known whether this reflects a second sighting of Polly’s squirrel or the presence of a second individual.
Averaging about a foot long overall, American red squirrels are significantly smaller than our more usual Eastern gray squirrels. Fur color also clearly differs between these two species. Red squirrels associate most closely conifers, feeding largely on the cones of spruces and pines, but the species has a varied diet, also taking foods as diverse as mushrooms, berries, and bird eggs.
It is likely that Polly’s red squirrel hitched a ride to Edgartown in a load of landscaping material, lumber, or firewood. If you think that is a long haul for a little ‘piney,’ consider that our sister island, Nantucket, had a red squirrel sighting in 2012! You can check it out on iNaturalist. For now, this verified observation changes the status of this species from ‘former resident’ to a tentative ‘I’ for introduced. Please report any red squirrels you see on the islands so we can better determine whether this species is becoming established here.
Wildlife biologist Luanne Johnson is the co-founder and executive director of BiodiversityWorks.