DEAR JOAN: Should squirrels be pregnant this early in the year?
The local matriarch, Lady Hamilton, is either heavy with child or getting fat. I feed her about a cup and a half of sunflower seeds and a few dozen grapes every day. Lord Nelson, the cad, won't let her near the corn cob, hogging it all.
Is there something else I should be feeding her? How long is the squirrel gestation period?
DEAR JERRY: There's a good chance that Lady Hamilton is pregnant, or she could be getting fat from all of that food you provide.
Squirrels have two mating seasons, the first from December to January, the second from June to July.
Gestation is 33 days for the smaller species and up to 60 days for the larger types, which includes our common gray and fox squirrels. Nature times things so the young ones are born in the spring, just as food sources are starting to develop.
The average size litter is four. If the food is plentiful, they'll mate again in early summer for autumn babies. The newborns weigh about an ounce and are an inch long. They are hairless, toothless and virtually blind for the first six to eight weeks of their lives. But they come on strong, leaving home when they are about 3 months old, making way for the new litter.
Technically, you shouldn't be feeding the squirrels anything. California has a law that forbids feeding of wildlife, with the exception of birds. The goal is to prevent wild animals from becoming too dependent on humans for their food, and to keep interaction at a minimum.
It's difficult not to inadvertently feed the squirrels as they refuse to accept that the goodies we put out for the wild birds aren't intended for them. And that reminds me of a letter a couple of weeks ago about feeding the ducks. I had a letter from the East Bay Regional Park District reminding me that in many places, it's against the law to feed the ducks and geese.
DEAR JOAN: While biking from Point Isabel to Ford Point, I spotted a white duck with a distinctive reddish-brown head. Never seen one before. I think he was with a mate, which was rather plain looking.
They were in the marsh area off the path from the Interstate 580-Bayview overpass. Was this a canvasback duck, and are they common for this area? Could I have mistaken it for another duck?
DEAR KIRK: You most likely did spot male and female canvasbacks. Although they aren't here year round, they spend their winters here, joining the migration on the Pacific Flyway. You saw it in a marsh, and that's exactly where you would expect it to be.
The adult male canvasback is about 15 inches long with a wingspan of 34 inches. It's considered a medium-size diving duck with a long, sloping forehead, a peaked crown that gives it a distinct profile, a red to reddish brown head and a black bill.
The canvasback population went into a steep decline in the 1980s and 1990s because of a loss of habitat, lead poisoning from eating spent bird shot, and a shortage of the duck's favorite food, sago pondweed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported an uptick in the number of birds in 2008, increasing from 488,000 to 662,000. Habitat restoration, a hunting ban followed by limits on the number that can be taken during hunting season, and the ban on lead pellets have all had a positive effect.
Joan Morris' column runs five days a week in print and online. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org; or P.O. Box 8099, Walnut Creek, CA 94596.