29 September 2007


It won't be October for another day or so but, to squirrels, it might as well be Christmas - and every oak tree (every nut-bearing tree, for that matter) might as well be Santa Claus. Many of the deciduous trees are fat and happy with acorns and are shrugging them off onto the ground in much the same way that, in the eyes of believing children, the seasonal jolly elf of winter sheds presents.

Of course, we don't trip over Santa's presents (real or fictional). At least not usually. But suburban trees, or even trees on hiking trails, are another matter. We can go rocking and rolling with these squirrel appetizers underfoot, breaking our backs or at least our spirits as the little gray beings are chittering, in superiority, overhead.

Our own property doesn't have nut-bearing trees, sorry to say. We are blessed only with maples and the polynoses of summertime. Sometime soon I hope to add at least one or two nut-bearing trees but whether they bear nuts in my lifetime is an issue open to debate.

Knowing how I feel about squirrels, friends often invite me to their yard to gather acorns there or, better still, they go out and gather up the acorns themselves to bring to me. Do I appreciate this? Well, who wouldn't? But do I recommend it?

Actually, no. That would be like going to your neighbor's house and stealing their supper right out from under their noses so you could put food on the table in your own home. (Assuming you even liked your neighbor's cooking.)

Folks who bring me a dozen or even two dozen acorns won't be tried and found guilty in the Court of Rodentian Justice, of course. No narcotics cop in his or her right mind would even charge someone for dealing in a controlled substance like acorns (of course they're a controlled substance! They're available only during a limited time each year!)

But I always ask people to keep the acorns on their own property, for the sake of their own squirrels - and if the acorns end up on their walkways, driveways, or somehow pose a hazard, well, gather them up and toss them on the grass in back of the house, where the same squirrels will likely find them anyway.

Thus the squirrel and acorn overload motto: Safety first, satiety second.

22 September 2007

Old friends

We're not supposed to miss them. Our backyard squirrels are, after all, wild animals - creatures with free will to come and go as they please, and to move about as their biological clocks and the seasons of nature dictate.

Still, we get attached. We begin to look for the nursing mother who starts to show up just after her babies are born, and we watch for her every day, hoping to see signs that the babies are doing well - and we slip her a few extra nuts, figuring she's eating not just for two but probably for four or five or six.

Or there's the full-bodied feisty male (everyone knows one of these). He comes by with a tough-guy attitude, he may even have a few battle scars or, on some days a slight limp from his war adventures, but he is a sucker for hazelnuts (or whatever the most expensive nuts happen to be that you've got on hand) and if you're not quick enough to get to the door to hand them out to him, he'll rap on the glass nice and loud - or climb up onto the sill and glare into the house from the window.

(I'm almost ashamed to say that when one object of my devotion showed up early one Sunday morning and rapped on the glass door, I got up so quickly from the kitchen table that I stumbled and fell, hitting my face squarely on the ceramic tile floor, requiring a trip to the emergency room to repair a shattered lip. But not before I had crawled through the Jackson Pollock-style spattering of blood on the floor to toss some hazelnuts his way.)

Sometimes there are the young siblings, raised in a nearby tree and now sufficiently agile to make their way up and down from the birth nest, seek out whatever food suburbia may offer, and even offer some entertainment in the form of wrestling matches, forward rolls and other exuberant gymnastics. These may even be the weaned offspring of the nursing mother who, not so mysteriously now, is no longer nursing.

It's hard not to miss them when they stop showing up: the guy with the limp or the misshapen paw. The female with the small hole perfectly centered in her ear. The squirrel with the flaming red bushy tail that stands in stark contrast to a silver gray body. You wonder: Did they die? Or did they simply move on? You hope for the latter and fear for the former, always scanning the landscape for evidence and finding relief when nothing turns up to confirm those suspicions.

OK, so we're doomed to sadness and longing because we've broken the rules. We do get attached, and new faces replace the old ones and we swear we won't care but of course we do. We name them. We set our clocks by their arrivals. We even wake extra early on some mornings (setting the alarm) if the weather's been harsh and we know they'll be by to make up for the previous night's early, storm-induced bedtime.

It seems almost illegal to have crossed the line here, as if breaking some law of nature.

Guilty, guilty as charged on all counts. I confess. Lock me away and throw away the key if you must but please, if you do, don't forget to leave me a bag of nuts so I can toss them through the bars and feed all my friends who are still on the outside.

14 September 2007

The Cycle Begins Again

The pre-release pen outside has been empty for a while now, and we'll be dismantling it soon. The last among the spring squirrel babies have been released.

Now we turn our attention to arrivals. And to much smaller enclosures - plastic pet carriers - which are taken out of storage to house the smallest of the small, the autumn orphans, as they begin to come.

We have two. These little girls are not siblings by birth but were brought together by circumstance and need by two wildlife rehabilitators before me. The larger girl fell from a tree and mom never came to retrieve her, for whatever reason. The smaller girl fell too, with her brother, who had a fractured paw and numerous other injuries. His paw had begun to heal and he seemed to be well on his way when suddenly, while he was being fed, he had a seizure and died, right in the rehabilitator's hands. It was devastating.

So the two girls were paired under the care of one rehabilitator, so neither would be lonely. They are maybe one week apart in age, and the smaller girl has a head tilt and seems slightly neurologic. But she has a sibling again. They have each other.

And now, as of last Wednesday, they have come into my care. They snuggle, they sleep and most importantly, they grow.

The cycle begins again.

09 September 2007

Foaming at the mouth

The big news locally this week is the "r" word. Rabies. Coupled with yet another "r" word. Raccoon.

New York State has been plagued with rabid raccoons since 1990 but it continues to spread without any significant gains in curtailment, prompting local health gurus to drop vaccine-laced bait from the sky in the raccoons' favorite haunts. This is the hoped-for dam that may turn the flood around - or so they think.

But fear (specifically fear of rabies, a completely valid terror of this fatal virus) has a way of causing a secondary symptom in people: the inability to hear or comprehend. They hear "raccoon" and immediately think "squirrel."

Both are two syllable words that identify forms of wildlife. But where rabies is concerned, the similarity ends there. Raccoon rabies is not squirrel rabies. In fact, there is no squirrel rabies.

Theoretically, as a warm-blooded animal, squirrels could contract and pass it on, if attacked by a rabid animal (such as a raccoon). But New York State health officials do not consider squirrels a vector for rabies. Rather, squirrels are called "dead end hosts" because the virus, if they get it, dies with them - largely because the rabid animal kills the squirrel first before the virus even has a chance to get its hooks into these small rodents.

Groundhogs? Well, it's a different story altogether for these heftier members of the sciurid family. They could well survive an attack.

But let's not give rabies to squirrels when nature, for the most part, doesn't. Squirrels have enough real enemies to worry about.

05 September 2007

Stadium squirrel, part 2

The eastern gray squirrel who attended the Yankees ball game on Aug. 28 has come back.

The squirrel was sighted (and photographed) once again at another game the team hosted - this one, against Seattle, on Sept. 4 - and was perched at the very same spot, the right field foul pole. I'm beginning to wonder if this isn't a mother squirrel who has a nest of babies nearby, and she's taking a breather from nursing by taking in the game (and getting away from the kids).

On the other hand, these are night games and squirrels are typically daytime creatures. So maybe this is a male squirrel who is a Yankees fan living close to the objects of his adoration - but displaced from his home in the stands by the crazed crowd?

It's hard to say. But it's clear this squirrel is definitely gathering his own cheering section, a breed quite apart from the fans who come, bearing tickets and beer, to root for the two-legged athletes playing down there on the ground beneath him.

So far as I'm concerned, the final score remains: Squirrel, 1; Baseball, 0.

02 September 2007

More squirrel chatter

I attended a lively, friendly brunch today, and squirrels were on the menu.

No, not part of the buffet of offerings in the conventional sense. Just in the conversational sense. No sooner had I finished my bagel and cream cheese and started on the first of too many cups of nice strong coffee than the inquisition started anew: "Why are squirrels so active this time of year?" (answer: mating, nut-burying, playing) "Do squirrels remember where they bury their nuts?" (answer: only for 20 minutes or so, then they find them largely based on scent) "How soon before squirrels can start having babies of their own?" (answer: depends what time of year they were both but usually it's by the end of the first year)

Autumn is very much the season of the squirrel. No wonder these questions are dropping from people's lips like acorns from the trees.

Nowhere else at any other time of the year is The Squirrel more apparent. Just as the winter season brings the visage of Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, or what-have-you-with-a-white-beard and 100 extra pounds or so, the fall brings the squirrel as the Seasonal Icon and with it, a barrage of questions that is just as seasonal and, happily, just as welcome for me.

Yesterday while shopping in Hallmark, to get cards and a free acorn candle that came as a promotional gift, I saw three small squirrel statuettes for sale, all with autumn themes. Now do I really need more squirrel statuettes? As things stand (and even as things sit) I have more statuettes than I have shelves to put them on. Still, could I resist this purchase, for a mere $7 or so per statuette?

You of course know the ending to this story. I will have to scout for storage - or rather, suitable display. Maybe buy some new shelving to accommodate them.

Perhaps there is shelving out there that has a nice stencil design in the shape of a squirrel.

01 September 2007

Squirrels from afar

Hello, finally, from the UK where I have grey squirrels in my garden and in the park behind my house.

What do they look like, and how do they compare to their US cousins? Well, I suppose I'd say they seem to be a bit smaller based on those I've seen in the US. But maybe the US ones just happened to be well fed couch potatoes, whereas the ones who visit my garden are desperate for food.

When I get a moment, I'll find and add some photos of them here.