Tassel-eared squirrels provide life and movement in an evocative landscape of the American West, the ponderosa pine forest of the high-altitude Southwest. The squirrels jump as far as 8 feet (2.5 meters) from tree to tree. However, they can't jump the Grand Canyon, and this gap has meant that two subspecies have developed: the Abert's squirrel at the south rim and the Kaibab at the north.
Just the thought of finding a tassel-eared squirrel encouraged my daughter to hike into and experience the ponderosa pine forest. They seem like an imaginary animal that a child would create by combining parts of different creatures. They have tall thin ear tufts, almost like those of rabbits, that help to keep their ears warm during winter. Their lush, fluffy tails are more typical of squirrels. Most commonly, the squirrels are gray with a reddish band down the back and black ears. The one we photographed lived up to this color pattern. The white edges of its tail are especially beautiful.
In the summer, the adults still have long ears but without the tassels. However, the babies, just emerging from their treetop nests, do have tufts, so this is a great way to identify the members of a family.
Since they scurry between the sunlit and shady spots of the forest, they live up to their name squirrel, which comes from the Greek roots meaning "shadow tail," according to Merriam-Webster.
The tassel-eared squirrel depends upon healthy ponderosa pine forests to survive. Wildlife biologists have studied forest characteristics that benefit or harm the squirrels. When trees are closer together, the population of squirrels is higher. However, the longer that snow lasts in the winter, fewer squirrels are found since these furry tree climbers do not hibernate.
They contribute to the health of ponderosas by spreading seeds through eating pinecones and distributing spores from symbiotic fungi. The fungi stretch out from the roots and help gather minerals and water, gaining carbohydrates from the tree in the process.
When the squirrels harvest twigs from the top of ponderosa trees, they toss down the parts that they don't want. Mule deer find these to be a wonderful food source.
Through contributing to symbiosis and bringing the high parts of the tree lower, these small squirrels are a vital part of the forest ecosystem, literally bringing it more life.
My first sighting of a tassel-eared squirrel was magical. We left the El Tovar Hotel of the Grand Canyon early to head out on Desert View Road. Our goal was to view the canyon edge, the far lonely views, and the juniper trees dotting down the rocks. But as were driving, I pulled my eyes away from the canyon view long enough to look into the ponderosa pine forest.
Looking toward a small clearing, I saw what I thought was some kind of bizarre rabbit on a tree stump. Its ears were very thin and maybe a bit too short, but what gave it away as a squirrel was the long, fluffy tail.
The squirrel seemed evanescent. The clearing was one of the few places to see into the forest. Just enough dawn light illuminated that one spot. The squirrel happened to have climbed on to a stump, a more visible place. I felt I had experienced a rarity. Until...
Later on our trip, we walked out of our hotel in Flagstaff, a hotel we had picked partly due to its location within a ponderosa pine forest. We were immediately accosted by a highly pushy animal, a tassel-eared squirrel, not in a "mystical" place at all but right on the welcome mat of our hotel. At first, my daughter felt it was cute. However, as it threatened to climb up her father's leg, she began to become scared. She called it a "shoe-eating squirrel." It did not seem ill, but it definitely seemed as it had gotten used to dining on breakfast muffins. We took one photo and urged it away, hoping that it would return to activities more befitting a forest squirrel!
Judging by the bins full of stuffed animals in the Grand Canyon tourist shops, the tassel-eared squirrel seems to have become an animal mascot of the Grand Canyon area. Although on the South Rim itself, the predominant landscape is pinon pine/juniper, south of the rim, many ponderosa pines grow. Indeed, I did see a squirrel in that forest.
At the Arboretum at Flagstaff, we saw an art exhibit of paintings from the children's book Rascal the Tassel-Eared Squirrel. My daughter particularly enjoyed the sketch of the mothers with baby squirrels in her nest. I like the use of the word nest for the squirrel's nursery, because it is a construction of twigs in the trees.
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