Parc du Mont-Royal is one of the largest
green spaces in the city of Montreal, and is situated around a trio of 200 metre tall hills from which
the park takes its name. Covered in trees, both coniferous and broad-leaved, it
is criss-crossed with trails and paths, affords spectacular views over the
city, and is especially beautiful in Autumn. But naturally, what brought me to
the park was the squirrels.
Mont-Royal is home to at least three
different species of arboreal rodent. The largest and most populous species appears to be the
familiar Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), which exists in
large numbers. I can’t be certain of this, however, as the boldness of this
species makes them far easier to spot and therefore may skew any attempt to provide
an accurate census. The squirrel pictured above has a beautiful pelt, showing a touch
of red amidst the grey (not uncommon for this species). Grey squirrel dreys,
which look like collections of leaves caught in the crook of branches, can be
seen everywhere in the park if you know what you are looking for.
The smallest species present is the Eastern
Chipmunk (Tamias striatus). I think this is the first time I’ve seen
chipmunks in the wild, and getting a photograph proved particularly difficult
as I’m using the camera in my phone which has no appreciable zoom. Although
arboreal rodents of the family scuridae like the squirrels, chipmunks actually
live in underground burrows – the rocky sides of Mont-Royal seem to be an ideal
habitat for them.
The third species is the American Red
Squirrel, or Pine Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). This is a different
red squirrel species to the one I am used to in the UK, but
both red squirrel species share the common trait of being both smaller and more
reticent than their grey cousins. I was very pleased to get the photo of this
one, as it is not easy to photograph red squirrels without a telephoto lens. I
have never before encountered red and grey squirrels in the same place
(although it is possible in parts of Scotland)
as the grey squirrels in the UK carry
an infection which is fatal to the native red squirrels which are consequently
The behaviour of the grey squirrels in the
park varies according to where you encounter them. At the outside edge, or at
the summit around the “Chalet” (a large and beautifully constructed hall), the
greys are extremely accustomed to humans, and practically expect to be fed.
When I sat on a wall on the summit, a nearby grey immediately came and sat with
me to see if I had anything tasty to offer. The squirrel pictured was
particularly friendly, and had no problem climbing up me to get food.
seemed to be having a tougher time of life near the summit than the other
squirrels – the grey squirrel pictured at the start of this article had an
overlapping home range, and looked to be in considerably better health. I
suspect he may have had low status in the squirrel society, and his amiability
was driven by hunger – he was probably getting a smaller share of the handouts
on account to being smaller, and therefore more easily chased away by other
greys (in fact, the aforementioned squirrel tried to chase this little guy away
from me, but I don’t reward this behaviour in semi-domesticated squirrels so it won
him no advantage).
In the centre of the park, where the forest
is densest, the greys behave much like wild squirrels, foraging for their own
food among the leaf litter, as well as climbing along branches to pull seeds
from the trees. They do not expect humans to be a source of food, and are
therefore somewhat confused when one starts throwing nuts. I do not know if
this is apparent to someone who has not spent some time watching squirrels, but
the squirrel pictured has a look of cautious interest on his face – he wants to
know what’s going on, but he’s not too keen to trust me. As I was holding my
hand out to win his trust, I was treated to an unexpected visitation: a small
bird of the tit family flitted down and landed on my hand, picked a choice nut
and flew off
. There was a small flock of these birds, probably black-capped
chickadees (Parus atricapillus), who took turns to land on my hand, pick
something good, and then leave. Occasionally, they would find something that
didn’t appeal, and throw it off my hand before picking something else. I have a
short video of this behaviour, which apparently is not uncommon for this bird
species. This short movie is unfortunately sideways, but nevermind.
On my second trip to the park, I attempted
to befriend this pair of female squirrels on the edge of the park –
probably sisters born this year. However, a fat and obnoxious male, who may or
may not have been related, kept arriving and chasing them off. I did not feed
him, which left him feeling quite frustrated, and he eventually retreated up a
tree to sulk. The two sisters came back down and reconnected with me, but were
still too shy to eat from my hand.
When I sat on a nearby bench, another grey
immediately came and sat upon the bench with me. He had clearly been fed by
someone from a bench before, as he seemed to know this game all too well. In
fact, he was more than happy to clamber all over me to pick the nut of his
choice from my hand, as this short video shows.
However, even this friendly little grey had
nothing on the group of four squirrels (almost certainly siblings) I met near
the summit that day. Grey squirrels are often suspicious of people on their
own, but when they gather in groups they become more bold. Partly this is
probably the reassurance of a second opinion: if I judge you as not a threat, I
could be wrong, but if we all judge you as not a threat, we can be more
Additionally, grey squirrels are great game players within their
peer group, and this quartet positively excelled themselves competing to be
more bold. This picture – which is not zoomed in any way – shows how close they
were willing to let me come.
A first for me, I was able to get one of
this group to feed from my hand while hanging from a tree, which is
extremely unusual behaviour for any squirrel.
I also managed to persuade one of
them to climb me as a tree, as this slightly blurry picture depicts – the
squirrel in question is literally hanging from my arm. Having them stop on
my knee to feed was incredibly easy – normally it would take more than an hour
of trust building with an urban squirrel to elicit this result.
The sun was setting, alas, so I had to bid
them farewell and make my descent, heading off to Chu Chai, an excellent
vegetarian Thai restaurant recommended to me by one of my readers for my first
decent meal since I arrived in Montreal. If there's one thing my time in the park has taught me it's that I need to get a digital camera with a decent telephoto function. If anyone can recommend one, I'd welcome some advice.
I have been to many parks, and met many
squirrels, but the squirrels of Parc du Mont-Royal have been exceptionally
charming. If time allows, I hope to visit one more time before I leave the