20 April 2009

COLORADO COLLEEN: A Shadow and a Tail

Above at center, Brother Squirrel perched on Mr. Crabtree in the secret garden last winter. I miss the little varmit, even though he chewed up a cotton tablecloth and broke a gift of a ceramic angel. We'd made a lot of eye contact over the winter.


An opportunity to meet the gaze of a bear, or a bald eagle, or a coyote comes all too infrequently. A face-to-face exchange with a squirrel is not so unusual. Then again, there’s nothing common about crossing the path of a squirrel. Squirrels are more than rats with uptown tails. Anybody who has observed the ambitious squirrel at work could not deny the impressive instincts of the species.

Something to chew on

The nature of squirrels is such that Native Americans associated them with forward-thinking and the ability to move swiftly. The medicine of the squirrel prescribes preparedness, the stockpiling of reserves that allow survival long after the season of harvest.
With its prominent, obsidian eyes, its hand-like feet, and its vocalizing, the squirrel can be easily anthromorphized. Watch a skittish squirrel and it freezes, watching you, matching your curiosity.
Watch it waggle its bushy tail and flippantly jeer, teasing the dog cursing below. Watch it whisk itself off in a spry scamper, darting and dodging at breakneck speed, climbing and leaping and scrambling up trees, across rooftops, over power lines, flaunting its free-roving ability, lifting the spirits of many a grounded human.
The unassuming squirrel can capture our imagination. And our birdseed. And sometimes, even, infiltrate our own nests--all with a shadow, a tail and an attitude indomitable.

Urban naturalist

When my dogs Friday and Copper patrolled the secret garden, squirrels tended to keep their distance. After both dogs passed over, the squirrels quickly came over the fences and into the secret garden. Now that no fur-people live with me, I feel even closer to the wildlife visiting my corner of the world. I see and often smell the musk of red foxes in my yard. I’ve spotted raccoons on the parkway. I enjoy the red-shafted flickers, the black-capped chickadees, the house finches, ravens and crows, hummingbirds, mourning doves, and occasional other fine-feathered friends.
And then there are the squirrels. Acrobats, they walk the tight ropes of utility lines, pounce from crab apple tree to roof, tiptoe across window sashes and fencetops. I leave treats for them, from time to time, with the agreement that they not chew up the hammock or the chair cushions or the tablecloth. I spot them daily, several times.
This morning, when I rolled out the recycling bin, I saw a squirrel dead in the street. He must have fallen from the wire above. His blood left a bright red stain in the busy avenue, and his tail still swished as cars drove past. It was one of those overcast, misty days that bring on the melancholy, and I felt a loss over the squirrel’s loss of life.
By the time the recycling crew had emptied my bin and I rolled it back to the garage, the squirrel carcass was almost totally gone, having been run over and over by passing traffic.

I remembered that I had written about squirrels, so I post this revised piece in honor of that little creature no longer scampering around my backyard, over my windowsills, in my birdbath.


The word “squirrel” derives from the Greek words “skia,” a shadow and “oura,” a tail. Squirrels use their tails for balance, as a shade from sun or a stole for warmth, as a rudder, and to signal danger to other squirrels.
Approximately 300 different kinds of squirrels exist. In Colorado, the most common is the fox squirrel, sometimes known as the red squirrel. Through pretty and full of personality, fox squirrels can be host to parasites carrying diseases, but incidents are rare.
A life-form industrious and entertaining, squirrels delight the interested on-looker with tight-wire walking, daring stunts and frolicking gymnastic feats. Squirrels are the planters of unintended trees, often forgetting where they bury their nuts or seeds. But biologists report that squirrels recover about 80 percent of their cached food.

Middle of the food chain

Squirrels eat nuts and seeds, fruits, twigs, buds, bark, leaves and pine cones, roots and mushrooms. They’ll accept just about anything picnickers offer. Maurading squirrels plunder bird feeders. Squirrels also raid birds’ nest, stealing eggs or eating nestlings.
In turn, a variety of mammals eat squirrels. Raptors prey on squirrels, and so do snakes, raccoons, weasels, bobcats, cats, dogs, coyotes and foxes--though agile squirrels can often elude terrestrial carnivores. Squirrels frequently are casualties of cars; in fact, winding up roadkill contributes substantially to squirrel mortality.

Squirrel family life

Though they occasionally share nests during winter, most tree squirrels live solitary lives. Naturally, they’re not always alone. Their courtship involves rambunctious chases around the trunks of trees and hither and yon from limb to branch.
Female squirrels typically deliver 2 litters a year, generally with two kits. Male squirrels are deadbeat dads, often neglecting parenting duties entirely, leaving the females as single parents tending the young. Once their eyes open after about 5 weeks, squirrel babies grow up fast. From 5 to 8 weeks, young squirrels immediately begin gathering food.

All that chasing around squirrels do? The chewing of holes in your trash bags? The digging in your flower pots? The raiding of your birdfeeders? The invasion of your attic? Squirrels are just trying to survive, same as we are.

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