31 January 2010

Notes from the underground

No one could ever be more grounded - or perhaps UNDERgrounded - on the changing seasons than Punxsutawney Phil. He alone knows what lurks in the heart and mind of Mother Nature when he pops up from his legendary burrow on Feb. 2 and proclaims what the next six weeks will bring:

More harsh winter? Could that even be possible this year, when many of us have already overdosed on all things frigid and gloomy?

An early spring? Don't make us laugh, Phil. Please.

Still, the power does rest between him and his shadow, as the wakeful woodchuck rises from his Rip Van Winkle style nap and emerges at Gobbler's Knob in Pennsylvania, the eyes of the world upon him.

And why not?

Everyone knows: if you want a good deal on a product, go to the underground. If you want to learn a deep, dark secret about someone, look to the underground. If you want to get a dirty job done, take it to the underground. No one will be watching. Not even the groundhogs who, at this time of the year, are usually sleeping.

By now, though, it's an old story. Phil is likely weary of it too, partly because his notorious shadow is quickly eradicated by the glare of the network TV cameras surrounding this poor soul as he rubs his eyes and slowly makes his way above ground.

Ah Phil. Seems that on Groundhog's Day morning the only thing he may be able to reliably predict is six more weeks of publicity.

28 January 2010

Squirrels go posh

Who buried all those acorns around New York's Grand Central Terminal?

This time, you can't blame (or credit) some street-smart squirrel. Try the 18th century American shipping and railroad magnate, Cornelius Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt wasn't looking to cache away nutritious foods for the winter when he worked the acorn and oak leaf motif into the stonework of the Manhattan rail station's main concourse: The Vanderbilt patriarch was creating a family crest for his emerging dynasty - the very visual signature it lacked, even as its fortunes grew over the years.

What better symbol than the acorn, known for hundreds, if not millions of years, to squirrels as the repository of a bountiful, leafy and sturdy future? It simply took humans a little longer to catch on to the idea.

The Vanderbilt-Acorn connection continues to this day, as the Jean and Alexander Heard Library at his eponymous university in Nashville, Tenn., is known to publish a magazine known as the Acorn Chronicle. You can just bet the campus squirrels couldn't be happier.

It remains to be seen whether Vanderbilt was a secret sciurophile, or just had a fancy for the same things preferred by our bushytailed pals. Nonetheless, to have a member of the nation's elite class share a sweetness for the same things as squirrels is a wonderful thing indeed. It's downright egalitarian.

Cornelius - or is that ACORN-elius?? - we thank you.

21 January 2010

For squirrel worshippers, a religious holiday

Season's Greetings. Merry Squirrel Appreciation Day.

And now, time for some carols: "Joy to the Skwerl." "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire." "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claws." And, of course, let's dance "The Nutcracker" and believe that there's a special present waiting, just for you, coming all the way from the Gnawth Pole.

Oh, so maybe you're not a believer? If you cannot possibly see royalty in a face such as this one - on a furry Floridian named King Hammy - then Ye of Little Faith may be doomed to a life without Reveling in Rodents.

And revel we must in this glorious season: The gift of Squirrel Appreciation Day was bestowed upon the world some years ago by a wildlife rehabilitator from North Carolina, and once its wrapping came undone, its charms and its customs spread quickly.

Forget the offerings of frankincense and myrrh. Walnuts and filberts are where it's at. Besides, Squirrel Appreciation Day ushers in the holy season that concludes early next month with Groundhog Day.

So may your days be merry and bright, and may your day be a beautiful shade of grey.

And remember: Only 364 shopping days until Squirrel Appreciation Day 2011.

17 January 2010

Victory, just for being squirrels

Sometimes the squirrels win.
Sometimes they don't.

The national football team of the African republic of Benin, The Squirrels ("Les Ecureuils") met with an unfortunate defeat today on the playing field where they were pitted against the Super Eagles of Nigeria.

I will resist the urge to state the obvious: that even in nature, squirrels rarely have a chance in any competition against eagles. Those sharp-eyed, high-flying birds are natural predators, and their talons are formidable weapons. There are no rules of sportsmanship here; only laws of survival of the fittest and swiftest.

Still, in this heated battle of the Orange Africa Nations Cup, it would have been heartening to see the pride of Benin give local sports fans something to chatter about. Instead, Nigeria's Eagles flew to victory.

In the United Kingdom, however, squirrels gained more than just a few points on the scoreboard about a week ago: A study by the British Trust for Ornithology revealed that, despite popular fears, the presence of the non-native eastern grey squirrel in Britain has had little or no impact (and certainly minimal negative impact) on that nation's 38 or so native avian species.

In this particular duel between avians and squirrels, it appears the squirrels have energed vindicated, if not altogether victorious.

Squirrel fans are cheering this quieter, less publicized triumph for the eastern grey squirrels in the UK. The squirrels are unwelcome strangers in a strange land where they have been targeted as a vector for the deadly squirrel pox, and for driving the beloved, native reds out of their home territories.

We all needed this good news, and so did the squirrels.
Although the Squirrels of Benin missed their chance today, the eastern greys of Britain can, for now, still carry the ball.

08 January 2010

Mother's Day

The new year, 2010, apparently isn't the only thing that has just been born: A small female squirrel is coming to our back door and she is very obviously nursing.

Spring baby season is out of kilter with the calendar, or so it seems. The annual December pairings generally don't produce the year's first crop of neonates until February (late January at the earliest).

So why - if my observations are correct - does the New Year's baby for 2010 promise to sport a bushy tail?

The seasons have begun to blend together. Mid-summer, normally a hiatus of a few weeks between the spring births and the fall arrivals, is now simply a continuation of the population assembly line. Gestation periods - 45 to 48 days - haven't changed, so are squirrels mating more, and more often?

We may never know. We can only hope, at this juncture, that this little mother squirrel, and the many others who are likely out there, are tucking their little ones in safe and warm beneath their fur, safe from an otherwise hostile blanket of snow and ice.

03 January 2010

Taking attendance

Here they are, again. Mr. Tilty. The pretty notch-eared momma squirrel who sits on the doorknob. The fat little youngsters who shoot up and down the trunk of the nearest maple to the house.

As they come to our back door, one by one, they aren't really reporting for duty - just for handouts, mainly - but I am taking attendance nonetheless.

The passing of 2009 left behind so many. We have long since ceased calling their names: Miss Tillie, an indoor rehab squirrel, died. Miss Daisy, who was caged right near her, survived to be joyously released. And then there were the anonymous squirrels relegated to the euphemistic status of "roadkill." The young males. The aging mama squirrels. They had no less dignity, no less worth, than the ones whose faces we knew, the ones we'd graced with names.

With 2010 upon us, we are taking attendance again. When they come, they bring a sigh of relief. Another long year awaits us all.

I will continue to call their names and hope for the best.