A few days ago I was surprised to see some nicely emptied-out hips from Rosa rugosa, a species having large fleshy hips and originally from Japan but very adaptable and salt-tolerant and so now widely naturalized along many sea coasts. Lots of it in Nova Scotia too (but mine were deliberately planted). I had never seen this before, or maybe just one or two and thus of no note.
However, these two were accompanied by a half-dozen others, so it was not some random tasteing. The empty hulls were lying beneath a small stand of beech and maple trees so I immediately suspected squirrels to have been the culprits, although mainly by default. I've almost always had squirrels over that area over the years, and I couldn't think of what else might be doing this. I only really hoped it wasn't rats!
The next morning there were twice as many R rugosa hip hulls (not to be mistaken for 'cool boats', ha ha) on the ground there, so I took to assuming that the squirrel (presumably) was stashing the seeds somewhere for winter consumption.
Then yesterday while striking down wood from the stacks into the basement, I noticed a few empty hulls sitting on a few locations of the woodpile, and noticed that the seeds were in fact being eaten at the time rather than stashed away. The seeds have a pretty thick coat, but no match for a rodent's incisors, and I could see that each seed had had an end nipped off and the embryo removed. Neat work! It also became apparent that they didn't eat the whole missing top of the hip, but ate around it in a circle, since there were a couple of little 'hats' among the debris.
This morning, early, I happened to be looking out a window and noticed some shaking in the rose hedge. Sure enough, not just one squirrel but two of them, climbing the rose stems and making off with the rose hips.
Curiously, though they have stripped one set of roses bare of all hips, even the green ones, there are a few other patches of R rugosa, all accessible from the same tree canopy runways (i.e. by running along and jumping on branches from one tree to another they could get to the other patches without having to leave the safety of the treetops; mind you they can't get to the wood stacks without leaving the canopy! so safety doesn't seem to be an issue), where even the ripe hips have not been touched (yet). Whether it's a territorial issue or just lack of exploring to date, I don't know.
I still don't know why suddenly the rose hips are of interest. Looking around (up, actually), I do notice that a very large black spruce which has traditionally been covered in cones has almost none this year, and the beech trees in the vicinity don't seem to have many nuts on them either. Nor are there many beech nuts on the driveway, although that might just mean that it's too early for them-- I can't remember if it's August or September when the bluejay vs squirrel treetop beechhead battles take place but if I had to put a bet on it, I'd say September as I seem to recall drier, cooler air. I do know the jays haven't been around for beech nuts yet, though, since they put on the most musical and softly expressive voices for the occasion, totally unlike their usual raucous selves.
So what I am guessing just now is that there is possibly a shortage of the preferred food of squirrels, and the rose hips are being taken out of necessity rather than taste preference. In which case it could be a tough winter to be a squirrel here. (too bad the darn deer don't seem to have the same food supply problems)
On another note, the flavour of R rugosa hips is quite good, and I've been known sometimes to add them to things like apple pies, but they're a tedious mess to clean the seeds out of. But now I have these little helpers doing that job for me, so a bit of scavenging and a good rinse later... no reason not to enjoy rose hips in volume!