Four small mammals sharing the common name “squirrel” as their common English name live in Jackson Hole. Two are terrestrial, two arboreal. Both terrestrial squirrels — Uinta ground squirrels and golden-mantled squirrels — hibernate. The arboreal species — red squirrel and Northern flying squirrel — do not.

Hell, I’m pretty much stretching any connection among these critters. It’s simply that just now I can watch ground squirrels and red squirrels regularly. A red squirrel has been particularly entertaining of late.

The red squirrel has been amusing himself (and me and some visitors) by, among other activities, hitching up a square metal rod, then sliding back down a la a fireman going down a firehouse quick-exit pole. Otherwise, this squirrel dashes about performing routine gravity-defying leaps and stunts.

Red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) are a foot in length, tail 5 inches long. Reddish above, whitish below, a light-color eye ring and bushy tail. Prefers coniferous forests. Abundant in the region. A frequent and noisy companion when you hike in appropriate habitat (pine or mixed hardwood forests). Primarily diurnial and active all year. A half-pound bundle of energy.

A family of Uinta ground squirrels is living under a deck, engaging the puppy at times, venturing out to eat almost any green vegetation. The “chisler,” the “picket pin” (for its posture often taken to resemble a horse’s picket device hammered into the ground).

Populations of this ground squirrel cycle, as do many relatives. Not of much economic importance but of great importance to its predators: hawk, coyotes, foxes, badgers, etc.

Uinta ground squirrels hibernate from August for seven or eight months. When Meg and I were September tourists in Jackson Hole, we never saw one. The first spring we spent here as residents, we were really puzzled at a strange call coming from a nearby hillside.

Couldn’t imagine what bird was responsible. We had birds in mind in those days. Tracking the call down to reveal a small mammal was a surprise. And a lesson.

Another small terrestrial mammal found in the Hole is the golden-mantled squirrel, Spermophilus lateralis. It prefers rocky areas, sage, open forests to timberline. Resembles a chipmunk, has a white stripe along each side of its body but not on its face. Golden-mantled ground squirrels are omnivorous, going after everything from seeds and insects to meat and eggs. They hibernate in late October to perhaps April. A common park animal in the West.

Among other ground-living small mammals found in Jackson Hole and which can be confusing to identify are Uinta chipmunks, yellow-pine chipmunks, least chipmunks and pikas. Not to ignore mice, voles and shrews. See “A Pocket Guide to Wildlife of Yellowstone and Jackson Hole” by Bert Raynes.

There’s one little squirrel of the region that is hard to find but, when found, is not too difficult to identify: the Northern flying squirrel, Glaucomys sabrinus. Sure, if you can find one. The Northern flying squirrel is nocturnal, quiet and unobtrusive. About 10 inches in length, a flat tail and outstretched loose skin that extends from front legs to hind legs on which it glides, not flies. Olive-brown above, white below.

The Northern flying squirrel may be the least-studied small mammal in North America. In Jackson Hole, many a long-term resident has never seen one or even suspected having one in his neighborhood. But observations made to in very recent years are establishing there are more flying squirrels in Teton County than previously known and should provide opportunities to discover more about the life history and population of these big-eyed, truly cute mammals. These squirrels don’t hibernate but in severe winter weather may stay in a nest or cavity in their forest habitat.

“Small” — as in small mammal — is a squirrely term. One of those nonspecific word whose meaning courts have trouble deciding.

Small mammal to me means smaller than, say, a porcupine or an American marten. Somewhere in there. Choose your own gauge. But squirrels are ... small.

Field Notes: It would be instructive to have Nature Mappers and folks who regularly come and go past the National Elk Refuge fence along Highway 89 tell us what, if anything significant or noteworthy, birds are doing or not doing since the pedestrian pathway has been put to  regular use.

One bike rider feels the smaller birds — bluebirds and swallows — are getting along OK. Larger birds — ravens and birds of prey — appear to avoid the fence.

When the data are collected by Phyllis Greene and her devoted followers who maintain and monitor the bluebird nest boxes along the refuge, we should have more to learn about any effects of change made as a result of the pathway.

© Bert Raynes 2012––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––Bert Raynes writes weekly on whatever suits his fancy with a dash of news on nature and its many ways.

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