When a Mess is a Nest

Gray squirrel on a tree branch.
Gray squirrel (© Jim Isaacs, used with permission)

High winds and rain here in Virginia earlier this week have left once-vivid foliage tossed and trampled on the ground like Election Night confetti. The red-orange-yellow pallet of October is shifting to browns, taupes, and grays. With the hyperbole of early autumn behind us, bare boughs and blue skies offer the perfect opportunity to pull back the leafy curtain for a peek “behind the scenes.” All you need to do is step outside… and make the leap from two dimensions into 3D.

Sure, we all know it’s a three-dimensional world but, with the exception of a flight of stairs now and then, our days are usually spent in a forward-backward-left-right routine. Skeptical? Spend even a few minutes watching a gray or fox squirrel ricochet through some timber and I guarantee you’ll feel like your days are spent in Flatland.

Unlike many mammals, squirrels make it easy for wildlife watchers. They’re not shy, they’re active during the day, and much of their activity occurs within the visual field between our feet and our face. Of course, while we keep our feet planted firmly on the ground, squirrels do not, and when they bolt up the bole into dense foliage they seem to disappear like a campaign promise. What good does it do to look up?

In parts of the country that have both squirrels and seasons when the trees go au naturel, craning one’s neck can be more rewarding during the fall. That’s why I’m trying to cultivate a new habit when out for a walk. Whenever I catch myself contemplating my shoes, I lift my eyes and scan the trees, starting at about the same level as the roof of a two-story house. Try it yourself. See those seemingly accidental wads of leaves and twigs, about the size of a football, caught in the gutters formed by branches? Those are squirrel nests, also known as dreys.

 

Dreys in a silver maple

Squirrels aren’t as famous for their engineering skills as are beavers but maybe they should be.  It can’t be easy to build 20 feet or more above the ground on a foundation that sways with every breeze. Construction begins with a platform of woven twigs, followed by a spherical framework secured to the base. Leaves, paper, and moss are used to fill in the gaps and create a snug, weatherproof abode with two doorways—a main entrance and a hidden escape hatch. The exterior may look a little rustic but the décor is luxurious. Lined with fur, feathers and other cozy furnishings, it’s the perfect cocoon for a cold winter’s night.

Closeup of a drey
Close up of a drey (© N. Hawekotte, used with permission)

Squirrels don’t hibernate but they do lie low during inclement weather. When the mercury drops or the snow starts to fly, a group of females may crowd into a single drey to share the warmth–kind of like a slumber party without the pajamas, pizza, and prank phone calls.

As spring approaches, the dreys serve a dual purpose as nurseries for the new crop of infants. I realize not everyone is a fan, but if you’re a squirrel aficionado and want the scoop on where to enjoy watching for youngsters when they venture out to explore the world and bounce among the branches, now’s the time to make note of which trees are littered with messy nests. Just think 3D… without the funny glasses.

Have a question about wildlife and other next-door nature? Send me an email and the answer may turn up as a future blog post. And don’t forget to friend NDN on Facebook!

© 2010 Next-Door Nature — no reprints without written permission from the author.

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