To Catch a Squirrel

Week two at camp and the temperatures have been steadily climbing above zero during the day. What a heat wave! It is funny when you start thinking of it as “warm enough to snow”. But truly, it is balmy out when your water bottle doesn’t freeze at night and you start getting overheated and sweating in your sleeping bag where just a few days ago you were buried so deep in your layers that you were liable to suffocate to death.

Although there is a lot to tell about the goings-on at camp, I thought I would spend today’s blog taking you through a typical day of trapping at Squirrel Camp to give you an idea of what we are up to on a daily basis. Right now we have four active study grids, all of which are within 10 km of each other along the Alaska Highway. Their names are Kloo, Sulphur, Jo, and Agnus. Each study grid is about 40-45 hectares in size and each has grid stakes at 30 m intervals that are labeled from A-Z running parallel along the highway and 0-30 running perpendicular to the highway, back into the spruce forest. The Kluane Red Squirrel Project is tracking all of the individual squirrels on each of these grids and recording information on their life history- when they are born, how many pups they have, what territory they own, and when they die. Right now we are keeping track of about 500-600 squirrels!

So a typical day usually begins around 8:30 am, but given that the squirrels are lazy too and aren’t active early in the morning when it is cold out, we don’t start trapping until 11:30 am. (Life is pretty good right now, but as we head into the spring and summer our days will start MUCH earlier so I’m enjoying this relaxing schedule while it lasts.)

After suiting up in a base layer of clothing, flannel lined pants, a wool sweater, snow pants, and winter jacket, here is what the raiment of trapping gear looks like:

First on is my hand muff. A word to the wise for all field biologists out there- if you don’t have one of these, stop what you are doing and get one now! This is by far one of the best pieces of equipment I have. I think I’d sooner go naked than leave this at home. (OK maybe not but still…) Since I can’t easily handle squirrels with gloves on I have to go bare-handed most of the time and being able to stick my hands in this muff when my fingers are beginning to go numb is AMAZING. And it likely makes handling much more pleasant for the squirrels too when I’m not touching them with ice blocks.

Hand muff

Binoculars get tucked inside my jacket for doing behavioral observations on squirrels from a distance.


Then comes the trapping vest. If it looks grungy, that’s because it is. The trapping vest contains lots of little pockets and hidey–holes for all of our trapping supplies.

Trapping Vest

Our trapping gear consists of following:


A handling bag (for handling the squirrel), colored wires and pipes cleaners (each squirrel gets a unique combination of colors put through their ear tags for easy identification), a Pesola scale (for weighing the squirrel), pliers, wire cutters, and tagging pliers, a jar of peanut butter (for baiting the squirrel traps), a DNA kit (if we catch an Un-Tagged Squirrel, what we call a UTS, we have to give them little metal ear tags and collect small DNA samples using this kit), radio collars (used to track females who have given birth and find their pups), and my data book where I record all of the information for each squirrel that I trap.

Lastly, on go the string of trap tags. We put one of these tags on each of the traps that we open to help us keep track of how many traps we have set so we don’t accidentally leave a trap open. That would not be good for the unlucky squirrel who would be stuck in the trap overnight…

DSC_0412When put together the whole compilation looks something like this:


Right now I am working on the grid called Agnus, which is one of the larger grids and the most populated with squirrels. This is in large part because the squirrels on this grid are fed peanut butter throughout the winter (lucky ducks), so they are quite fat and happy and tend to have lots of babies.

Here is the view of the mountains from Agnus, about 4 km down the road from camp.



Each squirrel owns what is called a “midden” where they stockpile all of their spruce cones (which is what allows them to survive the winter). They defend these territories very vigorously. Squirrels are usually easiest to trap on their midden so that is where we set the traps. This is what a midden looks like in the winter, not easily identifiable except for the pink flagging.

Squirrel midden in the winter

Squirrel midden in the winter

But here’s what it looks like during the summer and you can easily see the well-defined pile of spruce cones.

Squirrel midden in the summer

Squirrel midden in the summer

So on each midden I set open a trap with a trap tag attached and bait it with some yummy all-natural peanut butter.



I will run around and bait traps on about 15 different middens for the next hour. When the hour is up I head back to check the very first trap that I baited and, if I am lucky, this is what I see!


I then transfer the squirrel over to the handling bag, weigh the individual and sex it. Many of the squirrels on Agnus are already breeding (having the extra peanut butter throughout the winter allows them to breed much earlier) so I will palpate the females and check their pregnancy status.


Then the squirrel gets wrapped up tightly like a sausage so I can check their ear tag numbers and put colored wires in their tags. This doesn’t hurt the squirrel but actually helps keep them calm and quiet so I don’t hurt their ears in the process. The females get colored wires (as seen below) while the males get pipe cleaners. These colors help us identify individual squirrels from a distance. Once this is done the squirrel is home free! (At least for now…)


Here’s what a happy squirrel looks like with tags and colored wires in, just before I am about to let her go.


After four hours of running around on Agnus after the little buggers I head back to camp around 3:30 pm for a late lunch and to enter my squirrel data before dinner. For all practical purposes my day is then done, although there are lots of little chores around camp and preparation for the next day of squirrel trapping that also have to get done.

But yesterday our first squirrel on Agnus gave birth! So Hannes, Shannon, Simon and I went back out on grid that afternoon to see the first squirrel babies of the season.

As part of the Kluane Red Squirrel Project we enter the nests when the pups are 1-2 days old to take DNA samples and then again when the pups are about 25 days old and large enough that we can give them ear tags. These little guys (and girl!) were just born today:

Squirrel pups!

Squirrel pups!

They are kind of ugly at less than one day old but they only get cuter from here on out!

Here is Shannon tossing the pups down to Hannes in a fleece bag, this way she doesn’t have to climb down with them and risk falling or dropping them.


Hannes is keeping the bag with the pups in his shirt to keep them warm.


We sex and weigh the pups:


And then put tiny notches in their ears to provide DNA samples and to help us identify them later when they are old enough to tag.


A DNA vial with a sample from one of the pups.

A DNA vial with a sample from one of the pups.

Then we place them back in the nest for Mom to feed and keep warm. See you in 25 days little ones!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s