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Fairydiddle harvest is upon us

1108walD photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons The red squirrel, or as columnist Walt Humphries calls it, the fairydiddle, is kicking off the start of its spruce-cone harvest around this time of year. Humphries describes some of fascinating fairydiddle behaviour, which includes building spruce-cone pyramids in the woods and harvest mushrooms and hanging them to dry. August 2017

I was out at my cabin.

It was a little after five in the morning when I was startled awake by a loud ker-thunk on the roof. This was followed shortly by a crash-clang-sprong as something ricocheted off the cabin's stovepipe. Then there were more thumps.

Was I under attack from an alien space ship or was the Perseid Meteor Shower raining down on Earth. Was this the beginning of the end of the world, as we know it? Nope, it was a fairydiddle, aka red squirrel, kicking off the start of the annual spruce-cone harvest and using my cabin as a sounding board.

Since I was already awake, I got up and went outside for my morning commute to a patch of willows that I was trying to dissuade from growing. Sure enough, high up in a spruce tree was a fairydiddle harvesting cones singly or in small clumps and raining them down onto my cabin. I shook my fist at the little blighter and he or she had the nerve to chatter back at me in a slightly scolding or mocking fashion. I was temped to go get my gun and blast this particularly annoying woodland denizen from the treetop, but that wouldn't be very sporting and I doubt I could claim self-defence.

If you spend time looking around mid-summer, you will start to see little piles of de-husked spruce cones that the fairydiddles harvest and eat. Then, just as the cones are about to open, the squirrels move into harvest mode and chomp off hundreds or even thousands of the cones which they collect and store. They store them in their burrows, in storage chambers, under brush piles and in abandoned cabins. Great big piles of them for their winter fodder.

Occasionally, one comes across big piles or mounds, sometimes almost a metre high, made up entirely of spruce cone husks. Millions of them that represent generations of fairydiddles living in that spot. Sometimes people find these piles a little unsettling or spooky. Its like an ancient fairydiddle pyramid. Who knows, it might be an artifact from a lost fairydiddle civilization or tribe. They are indeed a little odd. Why hasn't a bear, wolf or fox torn them apart to get at the little critters? Is this the home of one or a whole colony? It is one of nature's mysteries - we don't completely understand the fairydiddle mounds. Why are they so few and far between?

If you look at the area where the fairydiddles are harvesting, you will see some spruce trees have a whole lot more cones on them than others. I suspect that in harvesting cones, they are also grooming the trees, intentionally or unwittingly, to harvest more cones the next year. Also, sometimes in the spring you will see where they have cut off the buds of new growth possibly for the same reason. So, in a way they are literally farming and pruning the trees to maximize cone growth.

Fairydiddles do even more interesting things in the fall. They will harvest mushrooms and hang them up in the branches of trees to dry. How did they figure out how to do that? Once again it shows a certain degree of intelligence and planning, for which they aren’t properly credited.

Later as I was contemplating all this, a fox happened by and caught a fairydiddle, who was too distracted by the cones it was collecting off of the ground. The fairydiddle eats the babies of the spruce tree and then a fox eats the fairydiddle. Sooner or later, something will eat the fox, when it gets old and slow. But life goes on.

That is the way of nature and we still have so much to learn about it. It is always amazing, surprising, and evolving, sometimes slowly and sometimes suddenly in fits and spurts.

Sometimes, at five it the morning it can be a tad annoying when it wakes you up unexpectedly.

Ah yes, “Protect us, from things that go bump in the night.”