28 February 2009

One Texan's housing crisis

In today's edition of the Dallas Morning News, gardening columnist Mariana Greene has transformed herself into a kind of real estate writer: She greets the image of squirrels living in outdoor nesting boxes with the same kind of welcome that the rest of us suburbanites and urbanites usually dole out to freshly built neighborhood McMansions.


In her backyard box, she would rather have a screech owl, she writes, because they provide a natural containment for her property's rat problems, owing to the predator-prey relationship between the two.

So when a squirrel moved in instead, it was as strong a case of NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) as one might see at a town hall public hearing when a developer proposes a big box superstore where a Little League field had once been. (Not only was this a common rodent but a somewhat corpulent one, making a strong case for a potential lawsuit based on Species Discrimination and Fat Discrimination.)

Do squirrels make bad neighbors? Other than the occasional tomato-plant thievery (so what? Plant a little extra and solve the problem), other than the more-than-occasional bird-feeder raiding (so what, again? Add a second or third feeder, or a platform feeder and enjoy the acrobatics), why fight nature? Unlike the guy next door whose teenaged kids hold pool parties, a squirrel won't blare his stereo until all hours or allow other squirrels' cars to block your driveway when they come to visit. The squirrels' kids also are off and on their own after 14 weeks - not 18 years (or longer). Best of all, if you are lucky enough, the squirrels will bury seeds and nuts that, in years to come, might just save you the cost of hiring a landscaper to do some plantings.

With apologies to Robert Frost who, I presume and hope, was a squirrel lover too, the bottom line is this: Good squirrels make good neighbors.

20 February 2009

Big squirrels on campus

I thought the Giant Squirrels of Borneo were big - and capable of big news - until I saw this article, which appears in the student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian:

Coming soon to Locust: big squirrels - News

The university's Art Club will be placing almost two dozen larger-than-life statues of these ubiquitous rodents around the campus, encouraging people to sponsor and, ultimately, decorate them.

The sculptures are a fundraising effort to benefit various campus activities.

Now what eastern gray (or even southern flyer) could take issue with that?

To anyone who thinks squirrels are only good for taking handouts, or hanging out around a bunch of nuts, take notice: These Big Squirrels on Campus are capable of great things!

13 February 2009

The doctor, the squirrel - and the hawk

Warning: This is controversial. No matter whose side you're on, this is going to be very controversial:

A surgeon in Vienna, Va., was recently arrested and charged with firing his gun in public - and with cruelty to animals. He fatally shot a hawk in the backyard of his home after he saw it eyeing a young squirrel, one that he and his wife had nurtured after it had been orphaned. The same bird of prey, apparently, had previously caught and killed an adult squirrel in the couple's yard. When the doctor saw the bird return and track the younger squirrel, he tried to chase it off using other means - none of which involved firearms - and then, when those attempts failed, he got his shotgun.

Was he right to fire his weapon in a residential neighborhood? The law clearly establishes he wasn't, and deems this a crime.

Was he right to protect the little squirrel as he did? Another law - in this case, the law of nature -establishes just as clearly that he also wasn't. The doctor's intervention unhooked one of the links in the food chain and disrupted the natural order of predation.

Is it criminal to want to save a life? This is what doctors do for a living, after all, with their human patients. In this case, the doctor had cared for the small helpless squirrel, raised and released him and, when he again fell helpless against the talons of the hawk, the doctor again intervened.

But is it wrong to take a life to save one? Likely there are many who would argue that the predation should have proceeded, uninterrupted. Likely there are others reading this (and at least one person writing this) who wouldn't think twice before doing the same thing.

There are no easy answers.

09 February 2009

Stumping in Washington for "Stumpy"

The elections are long over, as is the presidential inauguration, but there is still some unfinished business in one corner of Washington, D.C.: Stumpy the squirrel wants his peanuts. And he wants them NOW.

Stumpy - whose name was inspired by the remaining fragments of his tail - navigates a busy part of Northwest Washington, near the studios of Federal News Radio, where my friend Max works, covering the news. His latest headline report to me - which came accompanied by the photo posted here - was about Stumpy. This was indeed BIG NEWS: Amy, the executive editor at the radio station, had first spied Stumpy near a Dumpster and immediately took pity on his taillessness which she presumed was a flag of his fragility.

Her impression was tossed the next day when she saw Stumpy take on a dog (who was leashed, thank goodness), the squirrel defending his turf with chatters and whatever flicks he could muster from his diminished hind end.

She soon found he had captured her heart - and later, some peanuts she began to leave out for him on a regular basis. That was last autumn, just as the election was foremost on minds in that most political of U.S. cities - and elsewhere.

Stumpy is still in office, so to speak: He makes his rounds outside Amy's first floor office window and Max, ever the intrepid reporter, pressed his cell phone's camera into duty to capture the official portrait you see here.

He took no oath of office, of course - but probably chatters a few good ones, nonetheless, at the occasional passing dog.

03 February 2009

Six more weeks of ....

Judging from what's fallen outside our door this morning, Punxsutawney Phil also has a great career ahead of him picking winning Lottery numbers.

But we've gotten more than a mere flurry of flakes - we have a storm of more footprints than I can count: Little exclamation points dotting the path, punctuation marks that serve to complete this sentence: "FEED ME, YOU FOOLS!"

And so, we obey. Happily. Yes, master.

A groundhog does what a groundhog does, and likewise the eastern gray.

Punxsy Phil has predicted six more weeks of ravenous squirrels.

No complaints here.

01 February 2009

Well-grounded and hogging ground

How much winter would a wood chuck chuck if a wood chuck could chuck winter?

Six more weeks - maybe. That's what the nation's Top Chuck told us last year, when we chronicled the frosty predictions of Punxsutawney Phil in this blog.

It's that time again. And in a few short hours, we'll once again be putting our faith in a furball instead of a crystal one.

Rodent prognostication isn't limited to Phil and his fellow groundhogs, though. If only we had watched the way squirrels were hoarding their stash earlier this year, we could have known what was going on in the economy, followed their lead, and averted the need for all those bailouts. If anyone had seen the local chipmunks slip away into sleep a little bit earlier this year, they could have figured out that the winter temps would come on fast and furious.

Instead of paying money to psychics, reading our horoscopes in the paper (or online), or simply wishing on a star, we should go outside and feed the squirrels - and then watch them with an interpretive eye. These creatures know a whole lot more than they're letting on.

Meanwhile, the squirrel community has not yet weighed in on the Oscars, the Grammy Awards or even the outcome, later this year, of the U.S. Open. And not one has handed me a winning set of Lottery numbers in exchange for the small fortune I've spent on nuts.

Prognostication, after all, has its limits.