Wild Barcelona: Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed
Photo by Lucy Brzoska
The red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) of the Palau de Pedralbes park stream along the branches unobserved, and build their dreys (squirrels’ nests) out of sight in the towering Aleppo pines, somewhere among the parakeet nests. But sometimes they come to ground, especially in the afternoon when the army of gardeners has gone home and stopped their pruning, spraying and sweeping. Tails undulate in the grass like plumes as squirrels forage. Litter bins are investigated too, a source of apple cores and discarded sandwiches, though at the moment there are plenty of seeds and nuts to gather.
Red squirrels vary in colour: those in the park tend to be a russet-brown, set off by white breasts and black tails. At the moment, their pelts are particularly lustrous, topped off by lavish ear tufts, their winter adornment.
When two squirrels meet, a helter-skelter pursuit often ensues. They scrabble noisily round and around the tree trunks, loosening a shower of bark debris. Spread-eagled on opposite sides of the tree, they await each other’s next move. When one’s nerve breaks, the manic chasing resumes.
This ensures they’ll be fit for next spring, when the females go on heat and lengthy chasing begins in earnest, a prelude to mating. If climate and food supplies permit, which is surely the case in this Barcelona park, the females go on heat twice a year: between January and April, and then again between the end of May and August. However, if it gets too hot, squirrels will go into estivation (a period of dormancy in hot weather) and some of the park population make their way to the cooler woods of Collserola.
Red squirrels seem weightless as they skim through fragile canopies: the larger males reach a mere 350 grammes. Other interesting anatomical features of squirrels include double-jointed ankles and long claws, permitting secure vertical descents. Like all rodents, their chiselled incisors never stop growing—about 15 centimetres in a year.
Nick Lloyd and Lucy Brzoska write for www.iberianature.com and run nature tours in Barcelona.
First published November 2009.