30 December 2011

Teaching Samoa a few tricks

The Pacific island nation of Samoa made New Year's Eve news this week through its elimination of Friday from the calendar - this week alone - and taking a headlong, well-publicized jump directly into Saturday. The Samoans have remade the days of the week this week largely for economic reasons: They want to align their schedules more readily with their present and future trade partners.

If this seems revolutionary, imaginative, creative and outlandish, well, think again: Squirrels have been doing this sort of thing for centuries, ever since humans and squirrels collided along the woodland path.

Squirrels long ago decided there would be no need for any Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday or even Sunday. No Sabbath, no holy day of rest. (Squirrels don't rest much anyway). No special holidays, three-day weekends, even any annual White Sales (squirrels don't need bed linens), Fourth of July specials or even Labor Day weekends (squirrels don't join unions).

To squirrels, every day is simply Nut Day. So this is how the squirrel calendar looks:

Nut Day
Nut Day
Nut Day
Nut Day
Nut Day
Nut Day
Nut Day

Easy, no? With the hopes of aligning themselves more readily with the trade partners who freely toss them nuts, squirrels are out there every day of the week - which is always the same day of the week - ready to receive whatever type of kernel their trade partners may be exporting in their direction.

They don't need watches. They don't need calendars. They don't need anything except the ticking clock inside them that sounds the alarm, with each sunrise, "T.G.I.N. - Thank God It's Nut Day!"

Take that, Samoa. You think you're so clever. But you can't outsmart the squirrels. They'll always be one day ahead of you.

26 December 2011

Springtime in December

The Christmas carols have faded and the nursery rhymes are about to begin.
Listen carefully: You can already hear the sounds of Baby Squirrel Season 2012. Mass production is already under way.

The squirrels out there - the ones chasing each other - are not engaged in the squirrel version of any post-Christmas reindeer games. And they're not training for the winter Olympics. Here in the northeast, the annual mating game has begun and it is no meaningless frolic. The parts these squirrels are moving across the gameboard aren't exactly gamepieces. These are squirrel "private parts," and this is the serious business of rodent reproduction.

Heaven help us: All I wanted for Christmas this year was a kinder, gentler form of Squirrel Birth Control.

Is it too much to ask someone to fly a helicopter over the world's forests and, just for one season and one season alone, drop thousands of itty bitty chastity belts into the woods?

Would it be too impossible to borrow some of those old Army training films that were shown to soldiers to turn them off to promiscuity and line up the squirrels for a viewing?

Can some clever wildlife biologist please devise an "on-off switch" for squirrel hormones, just to give rehabilitators a break?

I'm not saying forever here but for just one season? It would be like winning the Lottery for many of us.

But Mother Nature supposedly knows better. And there's no force stronger than that, except perhaps the birds, the bees and - sorry to say - the squirrels.

Spring is coming sooner than you think. And this year's Class of 2012, just like last year's graduates and the ones before, all failed sex education.

Brace yourself.

04 December 2011

When trees become slackers

It's worrisome enough to make even the most mellow squirrel-loving human turn a deep shade of eastern grey: This is supposedly a "bust" year for acorns, following the acorn "boom" of 2010.

That's not good. Why should humans be indulging their dollars and senses in the untethered consumerism of the holidays - reveling first in the retail orgy of Black Friday - when squirrels can barely shop for the basics to fill their winter pantry? If the scientists are correct, this will be a winter of wanting.

It doesn't seem fair.

Yet a recent New York Times article claims the dearth of these seminal trees-to-be is most evident in places such as Central Park, and will have a ripple effect affecting both predator and prey. Humans are not left out of this ill-fated equation.

As squirrels go, so goes the nation.

Blame the trees which, apparently, are not doing their part. Acorn production, according to one forest ecologist, is well below the average 25 to 30 pounds a year per tree, for oaks alone.

Is this a workplace stoppage? Are the trees going on strike? Or perhaps, like so many American production facilities, perhaps even trees have begun to outsource their output to overseas facilities where tree labor is cheaper (and not even unionized)? Perhaps even underage trees are being forced to produce acorns before they are even mature enough to handle it?

It's easy to see, from the squirrels' point of view, where this can all lead back home in the U.S.: No nut-cache to be had means a future rife with hunger and with few available jobs because there is nothing to bury. Fewer acorns to sprout and grow means, ultimately, fewer trees to house squirrels of future generations.

Hunger, unemployment and homelessness - sound familiar?

The Federal Acorn Reserve Bank doesn't seem to want to kick in its share - adjusting the interest rate on acorns or maybe giving squirrels easier access to acorn credit - but then, would squirrels even accept government handouts at this point? I think not.

There has to be a solution.
This would ordinarily be a tough nut to crack but, unfortunately, there are none of them to be found.

24 November 2011

Giving no thanks for all they can eat

They are guests at my Thanksgiving table, and they are too numerous to count. How fortunate they haven't demanded use of the good china, which maxes out at 12 placesettings.

They feast on a stuffing of pecans, walnuts, almonds, berries, corn kernels and the occasional acorn. There is no turkey on this menu - they would not want it anyway. They need no gravyboats or soup spoons. They need no neatly folded napkins.

They simply gather together, each and every one jostling, reaching, munching and squabbling, just like any other ravenous family whose uneasy reunion is spurred by a desire to gorge. In fact, the familial resemblance between them is startling. Gray, after all, is an easy middle ground that even the not-so-style conscious can embrace. Still, it is hard to discern the mothers and fathers from their own offspring. A big appetite is obviously an inherited trait, a dominant gene, and they have passed it on through the generations.

To get to this feast, they had only to battle the holiday traffic out of the tree limbs and the tree trunks. Repeatedly. And by nightfall, they will be bloated with the day's digestion and their own self-importance. Today, after all, was all about them. Wasn't it?

No, they will not say grace before this meal. They never do.
Nor will they give thanks afterward. They never have.
And if supplies run short, they will merely chatter their teeth, stamp their feet and perhaps the boldest among them will take a catapult leap at the screen door. This Thanksgiving buffet is, after all, an outdoor table.

Ah, but the leftovers: An untouched acorn, buried for another day and then forgotten, adds to the forest. A bypassed walnut, packed deep into the earth, begets a tree. Perhaps then, for desssert, we need to serve a slice of gratitude of our own instead.

Let us give thanks, even if the squirrels - boisterous, bad-mannered and bawdy as they are - do not.

May our hearts and our doors always be open to them.

20 November 2011

Crime and punishment

Your Honor, she is not a criminal. Annick Richardson may be many things, but the Ohio woman is not a criminal. The London Daily Mail, which has been following her case, describes her in its headline as a "Compulsive Squirrel Feeder." The somewhat less imaginative press here in the United States, simply refers to her as "nuts," careful to adorn the adjective with quotes, lest the media themselves end up in court themselves on defamation charges.

And now, the Ohio animal-lover has had her day in Kettering Municipal Court, facing as much as 60 days in jail and considerable fines, for blanketing her suburban Ohio neighbohood with peanuts, squirrel feeding stations and dishes of water. The neighbors claim that her Johnny Appleseed-like actions (Joanie Squirrelseed, perhaps?) have spurred a sudden and rapid increase in the local squirrel population.

Please, folks: Richardson is merely feeding the squirrels, not copulating with them.

Besides, peanuts are not fertility drugs - we would have a less truncated elephant population if that were so. Peanuts are simple legumes. (Frankly, if Richardson should be faulted for anything, it is for not feeding a more natural food such as walnuts or pecans, since legumes are not nuts and, as such, are not "real" squirrel food. But that is beside the point. Or perhaps she is also guilty of spreading America's obesity crisis to its native rodents by super-sizing them.)

Her Ohio neighbors are weary of finding spent shells - the kind fired by double-barreled squirrels - and tired of the lawns being dug up (which, by the way, many suburbanites pay a hefty fee to have done by professional landscapers each spring. But again, that is beside the point here too.)

A confident Richardson has assured the press she is not a villain nor is she a monster. A pre-trial hearing has been set for December to pursue her case yet further.

Ah, but perhaps we squirrel-lovers shall all ultimately be jailed for our presumed sin. We have gotten the local squirrels hooked on the Nut Drug, then made regular drug drops in our neighborhoods to keep the addicts in line.

Your Honor, if she is guilty then we all are too. Shackle us all and lead us away. But provided our county jails still allow visitors, as most surely do, we should not despair:

Even in the toughest holding cell, the space between the bars is wide enough to permit entry by the very small. And I suspect that one swift, fur-bearing, bushy-tailed visitor will not forsake us in our incarcerated state.

In one paw, no doubt, will be carrying a small gift for us, the wrongly imprisoned: Neatly sandwiched between two shelled pecans, a jailer's key.

16 November 2011

Squirrels occupy New York too


Suddenly, everyone’s preoccupied with the "Occupy" movement. The whole world (or at least 99 percent of it) seems to want a piece of the Occu-Pie.

Which brings us to the squirrels. It always comes down to the squirrels. (Or perhaps it comes up to the squirrels, depending upon how high their tree may be.)

Squirrels Occupy New York. (That makes their piece of the Occu-Pie the pecan pie, presumably.) Though many other U.S. cities presently have gatherings similar to the protests near Wall Street, only New York has this special collective of Professional Gatherers.

Theirs is not a protest, however. And it’s not even anything new. Squirrels have always been a part of the city – accosting visitors in the sprawl of Central Park or maybe trailing any other well-meaning, nut-bearing humans in places as small as the city’s numerous vestpocket parks.

Squirrels, it seems, have almost always Occupied New York in a more concrete (or bronze) fashion as well: Their likenesses are carved into the facades of buildings and you can find their distinctive forms immortalized in bronze statuary in green spaces.

Across the city, architects and artists seem to love them too.

And now there is a catalogue of this occupation: A most wonderful blog, "Ephemeral New York," celebrates the metropolitan bond with bushytails in its Nov. 17, 2011 post about these ubiquitous likenesses. Best of all, there are photos. Artists’ interpretations of squirrels adorn bank buildings and flank apartment buildings, accompanying the post, called “The squirrels that decorate New York buildings.”

Rest assured, these figurines are more than merely d├ęcor. They are New York acorn icons.

Ah, there is much here to dig through – an action our tiny heroes would clearly endorse engaging in. And there is perhaps even more to be found, yet to be unearthed.

Worry not: the squirrels will get around to it, even if we don't. Right now, however, it’s autumn and they’re a bit preoccupied here in New York.

11 November 2011

Polar opposites and unbearable truths

In Canada, a political battle is on for hearts, minds and a nation's new emblem, and the faction favoring the longstanding beaver is under siege from the faction favoring the formidable polar bear.

As our beloved blogger colleague, the aptly named Lone Grey Squirrel, has suggested: forget the beaver, forget the polar bear. What about the squirrel? As a Canadian with a strong interest in the outcome of this sparring of national symbols, Mr. Squirrel indeed raises an important nut worth cracking. (You can even vote on the critter of your choice, by the way, by clicking on the link to his blog, provided here.)

One Canadian politician recently lauded the polar bear as worthy because of its "strength, courage, resourcefulness and dignity," and trounced beavers as "dentally defective rats." Putting aside such blatant animal defamation (and idle fantasies of casting the senator out into Canada's woods in the heart of winter), let us step away from this hairy debate and instead consider the simple merits of the squirrel.

In an environment of global economic crisis, the squirrel is resourceful to the point of hoarding. The squirrel's motto: "Cache as cache can" could become the lyrics of a new global anthem in this money-strapped world of ours.

At a time when charitable giving and worldwide cooperation is stressed for our communal survival, who is better equipped to go out on a limb for us all than the squirrel?

And finally, in an era full of negative thinking, the squirrel remains ever bright-eyed and ... well, you know.

We are not here to defame his distant cousin, the beaver. (Nor are we here to "dam" him.) Likewise, we will not engage in polemics over his polar challenger.

The squirrel is the simple answer for a new national symbol in Canada. Just lift another national symbol - the Maple Leaf - and look beneath.

There, neatly nested in the intertwined foliage, you shall find him. Loyal patriot, he's simply waiting for the call to duty.

09 November 2011

No Squnemployment Rate

Squirrels have got the economy beat. They don't lose sleep over the news that there's a 9 percent jobless rate. When it comes to the industry of being industrious, squirrels are nature's own CEOs.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor may be baffled to learn that there is practically a Zero percent squnemployment rate. Not one squirrel in this country is presently collecting benefits.

Instead, you can find in them in commercials (Recall the dancing squirrel in the Radio Shack "Squirrel Sunglasses" commercial earlier this year?) Or in ad campaigns, including point-of-purchase posters (Monroe Shocks & Struts has made a career out of having several eastern gray spokesrodents give glowing endorsements to their auto parts). And let us not forget the "Rally Squirrel" whose impromptu antics on the diamond turned this year's baseball World Series into a cause for cheering (even among those among us who are non-sports fans).

And in a few short weeks, Alvin & the Chipmunks - possibly the only tiny ground squirrels of their species who come out of hibernation at Christmas - will be busy serenading yet another generation with their holiday tunes. When it comes to seasonal popularity, they almost out-Santa the big guy.

And let's not forget all those anonymous squirrels working hard these last few weeks, burying acorns - saving for the winter, and for future generations.

So next time one crosses your path - whether you're driving, riding your bicycle, or just taking a stroll - be nice. In fact, offer a handful of nuts, a smile and some kind words.

If the economy continues the way it's been going, you might just be looking at your next boss.

17 October 2011

Leap of faith

Just a day ago, they seemed so big: Two healthy juvenile male squirrels, long since weaned, cracking nuts, flexing their muscles with every leap in the pre-release cage. They looked like they could conquer anything in their path.

And then, this morning, they seemed so small: Released into the woods, they were dwarfed by the trees. As they climbed higher toward the sun, they grew smaller still. So many weeks earlier, they’d fit in the palm of my hand or on my lap. I called them “babies.” But now they are free and, in this big world, they seem almost no match for it all.

Not knowing this - or perhaps not even caring - they bounded forth, embraced the massive tree trunks, dug with gusto into the fresh earth, kicking up the fallen leaves. Their brains and limbs were already occupied with visions of acorns and nest-building, functions buried deeper in their genes with a skill even greater than their own legendary ability to cache.

There is always a leap of faith when you open the hatch and say goodbye, and it is never easy to be the one left behind.

And so, for them all, I must allow them the privilege of that leap - and take it with them, even as my feet stay firmly on the ground.

May they always leap with grace. And I pray for soft, happy landings. Always and forever.

11 August 2011

The mystery of the woods

Three squirrels, ready for release:
No one knows where they will go in the next few hours. We lift the door and set them free. It is as light and easy as exhaling. And at the same time, as heavy as a sigh.
"Well, it's about time," they think (or perhaps not). And then, as if pages from the narrative of their existence had never been torn out, they will move along with grace to the next chapter.
The word "release" is not in their vocabulary but surely some syllables or sounds exist in an elemental lexicon to express what they feel as the earth takes its rightful place beneath their feet, as their bones celebrate the newness of it all.
Not more than a mile or two away from this vast, wooded release site where this trio breathes in new life, a small litter proved to be no match for the objective harshness of the world. A rescue call came in the night before: Newborns, some with their umbilical cords still attached, had been placed on the ground by well-meaning rescuers - for a hoped-for reunion with the mother, which never happened - and a combination of dehydation, lack of warmth, and a small swarm of ants, had overtaken them all.
The rescuer's voice on the phone was frantic as she hurried them to the animal hospital. The animal hospital sent back a message saying their prospects weren't good.
Perhaps these babies are all dead by now.
Perhaps there was no way to save them.
And perhaps the only certainty here is that we will never know what could have happened and if they even had a future.
As for the three babies from Springtime 2011, who have now grown and are living beyond the sheltered realm of human care and captivity, the same can be said: After today, the only certainty is that they are out there. Hurricane season will blow through, and winter will hold us all in lockdown, and then the January breeding that heralds the baby season will begin again.
Will they survive until then? They have come this far and yet these woods hold so much more mystery than we can ever know. The only certainty now is the undeniable uncertainty of their fates.
But as they wait for the hatch to open, they do not look the least bit worried. Already they are looking beyond.
I cannot see what they will do after this day, but I do believe in it, nonetheless.
And so, I will be content and have faith in that.

08 August 2011

"Take Your Squirrel to Work Day?"

All of a sudden, it seems like "Take Your Squirrel to Work Day" has been declared in Miller County, Arkansas: Two squirrels have set up shop on the windowsill of a county building to use as their daytime hangout, and they're even putting in some overtime at the office.

Dubbed "Millie" and "Miller" by their human workplace counterparts, they have even proven themselves to be exemplary county employees: They take their breaks regularly at the office water cooler (in this case, a big water dish set out on the sill to quench the thirsty pair). They are often spied with their eyes casting a longing glance or two, gazing in the window (well, they're already outdoors, so gazing out seems pointless). And, as often as they can - whether the big boss is watching or not - they put up all four feet and snooze.

One of the county staffers working inside the office even goes through the pantomime of giving them belly rubs - with the pane of window glass safely between her fingertips and their little bodies.

Millie and Miller have claimed the county building as their branchless branch office, and they're got everyone charmed. They recently shared their work ethic with all the world in this CBS News Video.

Their workplace tenacity could, however, portend a bit of a labor skirmish: The squirrels seem to savor the attention - not to mention the strategic locale - and often stay perched up there well past the traditional quitting time of the folks inside. One worker, Julie Huntley, told CBS News that these little gray civil servants still remain on duty even after it's time for the humans to lock up their desks and head home. Not that she's complaining, of course. Squirrels were never known to be clock-watchers, anyway.

But wait 'til the department chief sees all those overtime slips - ones marked with curious scratchings on the bottom, where there's space for an employee's signature. And wait'll someone smells these same overtime slips, redolent with hazelnut and walnut.

Union and management might just end up in the middle of a wage grievance that could possibly lead to arbitration. Or maybe just an arboretum.

31 July 2011

Taking leave of their Census?

Sure, squirrels count.
But people counting squirrels might very well add up to something even more valuable.

In the Chicago area, an initiative known as Project Squirrel has harnessed the astute observations of several hundred volunteer observers to monitor and record the activities of these locals at various places throughout the city's grid.

No, this isn't a case of sane researchers gone nuts: The Chicago Academy of Sciences has taken this project seriously since its inception in 1997. There is a lot to be learned, after all, about a region's changing ecology from the way its citizens of nature live and the patterns of their days.

This is not a Census in the true sense of the word: No notebook-bearing stranger comes knocking on tree trunks interrupting the squirrels' day to ask how many adults and youngsters are legally living in those branches. No one with a clipboard is taking notes about their annual income in acorns or asking about their ethnic origins - whether their native language is Squirrelspeak or some other Rodentian dialect.

In fact, federal funding for tree-improvement projects or drawing new district lines for Rodent lawmakers' turf doesn't even hang in the balance here. It's all in the name of science, not politics, with findings recorded on a survey form.

Putting squirrel-watchers to work is a good thing. It's not hard, after all, to toss a few nuts with one hand and take a few notes with the other.

Feeding squirrels, after all, is a pretty noble enterprise. But what they can feed us, in exchange, might prove to be so much better.

30 June 2011

A window on their Independence

Free video streaming by Ustream

I could watch these juvenile squirrels forever. And how I wish I really could.
But juvenile squirrels, like infant squirrels, don’t respect the march of time. And why should they?
They deserve to grow up, be something more than cute critters in a cage that we watch for our delight and amusement.

Of course, if you click on this link and survive the one-minute commercial that leads to this fabulously candid webcam, you’re treated to a window on reality that Alan Funt’s old televised 1960s “Candid Camera” could never have envisioned: Young squirrels climbing, running on an exercise wheel, stealing food from one another’s mouths. Young squirrels grooming other young squirrels, completely oblivious to the fact that by the grace of human benefactors’ intervention, they are orphaned but nonetheless alive today.

(If you are unable to see the image and the link, clicking here will get you there instead.)

They obviously love being squirrels. And in their own way, they are celebrating. Caged or not, for now, they are happy with their lives. And that is enough for now, until the real world explodes into the kind of open space that makes every day Independence Day for the rest of their lives.

21 June 2011

Justice for all

The squirrels could use a couple of good lawyers.

They are regularly indicted in the headlines. "Squirrels Turn off the Lights in Centralia," "Power outage closes Richmond's Manchester courthouse," and "Bethesda Power Outage blamed on Squirrel," all real-life news stories about the unfortunate consequences of powerful incisors having met their match with the local utility company.

If that were not enough, the squirrels are regularly defamed and blamed by gardeners, who deploy everything from squirrel-proof bird-feeders to squirrel-resistant barriers for protection and preservation of their flowers and veggies. Otherwise mild-mannered, gentle nature-loving folks resort to viciously spiking their millet, sunflower or thistle seed with hot pepper as a deterrent.

And even when a kindly motorist veers to avoid hitting a squirrel crossing the road and lands in a ditch - it is the squirrel who is blamed.

"Innocent until proven guilty" apparently doesn't apply when the citizenry flicks its tail and chatters its teeth.

And still, squirrels are seen as more culpable than members of congress who, without benefit or modest cloak of fur, have lately seen fit to post their various body parts on the Internet, or to chat up underage constituents online.

Where is justice? Where is the squirrels' Bill of Rights?

Well, for one thing, squirrels don't vote.
They don't even pay taxes.
And sure, once accused of thievery or worse, they often bury the evidence too deeply to ever be unearthed by any subpoena. Then they stamp their feet in the face of constitutionality.

As July 4 approaches, however, we should consider celebrating just that spirit of unfettered independence, the kind that gave birth to our own nation in the 18th century. Surely we don't want the squirrels to secede, to draw a line in the sand, or to move elsewhere.

Imagine having no squirrels around. There'd be no one left to blame for thievery, for power outages and for crop failures.

In the end, we'd have no one else to blame - no one but ourselves.

08 June 2011

Into the woods

They had names, but it serves no purpose to utter them now.

Their arrivals were trailed by stories from their rescuers but this morning, those stories of rescue ended when the adventure of freedom began.

Three young squirrels, saved last fall in three separate incidents and wintered over in care through the difficult season, were released back into their lives, and as they explored the world beyond their carrying cage, they took their names and their stories with them.

Neither will be of use to them now: Everything about them has blended into history just as their coats now meld seamlessly with the high bark of the woodland trees. This trio is indistinguishable from the parts of the forest they were born to inhabit.

In videos and photos, I can always hold them forever.

In truth, though, they were never mine.

Godspeed, little ones.

21 May 2011

No end to their world

I know with great certainty that the world is not going to end today: The squirrels are outside, burying nuts.

There is something very forward-looking about the way they cache these super-seeds. This is their equivalent of the IRA, the 401-K, the SEP. This is their retirement plan (though squirrels would never be so foolish as to hang up their successful careers. Gnawing, nut-burying and baby-squirrel-making has always been far, far too profitable a venture.)

Forget all the grand predictions and warnings you’ve heard about sudden doom. Squirrels believe in the future. They're too busy building tomorrow's natural world and populating it to worry about final sunsets.

So let the earthquakes keep still. Let the ocean suck back its tsunamis and hold them for another day. Let the locusts and plagues fly off somewhere. Anywhere but this planet.

The squirrels are far too busy for Armageddon. There are forests to plant, after all. Nuts to crack. Trees to grow. And baby squirrels to make, to populate the branches.

So please don't bother the squirrels today with any talk of finality: They're caught up in the rapture of the moment.

29 April 2011

Squirrels in the Royal family tree

It’s not the tree, it’s the acorns. Any self-respecting squirrel knows that.

And so, with that, British uber-bride, Kate Middleton, endeared herself to the rodentia of the world by dangling silver acorns on either side of her head on her wedding day.

With those ears, William’s bride also won some squirrels’ hearts. She couldn’t have done it with the confection that was her white Sarah Burton dress – or with its voluminous 9-foot train. She couldn’t even have come close to wooing them with her sparkling Cartier tiara.

She had to hang two tree nuts from her lobes.

The earrings were inspired by the brand new Middleton family coat of arms, an insignia clad with three acorns – symbolizing Kate and her two siblings.
And somewhere in the trees not far from Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey, the squirrels were perched on branches applauding. On nature's own receiving line, they were chittering, stamping their feet and flicking their tails – the squirrel equivalent, one would assume, of cheering.

But these squirrels weren’t throwing any rice. On this day, only the best of nature’s confetti would do: they got busy digging up – what else? – some acorns of their own.

15 April 2011

One bright-eyed, bushytailed business

It's time to debunk two myths - both deal with things that are everywhere and, we hope, are equally well-loved: flying squirrels and peanut butter.

Flying squirrels do not, in fact, fly. These small arboreal rodents glide by the grace of a membrane, known as a patagium, located between their front limbs and their bodies.

And peanut butter (we're talking about the good kind here) does not stick to the roof of your mouth. Properly prepared, it delivers a melt-in-your-mouth experience that is as savory and satisfying to humans as, well, nuts would be to any self-respecting squirrel.

Which brings us to our next point: To all those disgruntled restaurant patrons who've ever cried out, "Waiter, there's a fly in my soup," we say, stop ordering the soup. Tell the waiter to bring you a Flying Squirrel in your Peanut Butter instead.

There are, of course, no flying squirrels in peanut butter. But in Eugene, Oregon, two squirrel-loving entrepreneurs have fashioned a peanut-butter spread that has every bit of the appeal of a cute furry face begging at the door for goodies. Even the logo for Flying Squirrel Peanut Butter, complete with wings and cherubic countenance, says: "adorable."

Two college roommates, faced with an unexpected peanut-butter shortage at home one day, cracked that problematic nut by plugging in the food processor and creating their own, and soon liked the real thing so much, they began experimenting with a variety of imaginative ingredients. Soon, word-of-mouth led to orders. And then more orders. Finally, a website, a blog and - yes - a business and business partnership.

By admission of her friend and business partner, Keeley Tillotson, Erika Welsh is the squirrelier of the duo. She channels her inner sciurus carolinensis by storing a cache of her daily uneaten snacks, digging them up, as needed, as the afternoon progresses.

But both adore squirrels and are practiced in the friendly chatter of the business world: They are using it to expand their homespun nest, one nut at a time.

Ah, but debunking myths only goes so far: This is one peanut butter that sticks in people's minds and this is one Flying Squirrel that has really flown: Humans clearly love it. Crave it. Want it. And are ordering it.

Still, the ultimate field test remains: What do the squirrels think? We await word back from the woodlands where, even now, the small fur-bearing captains of industry have just caught the scent of freshly ground nuts in the Oregon air and their mouths are salivating with curiosity.

28 March 2011

Without a paddle

How did a young squirrel get trapped inside the toilet of a businessman's hotel room in Malawi?

That is, in fact, what happened according to this account, and many others, about traveling entrepreneur Duncan Goose.

In the photo taken by the startled traveler, the squirrel, to say the least, looks distressed, if not altogether disgusted: A ceramic commode is not exactly a treetop in the great outdoors, and there is no material to be found in a toilet bowl that makes for suitable nesting.

The British businessman, however, had the presence of mind (once he overcame the shock) to rescue the little squirrel and set him (or her) free. That was both a kindness, and a commendable move.

This is not the first time a squirrel and a toilet have had a similarly unpleasant encounter. In December, an unfortunate squirrel turned up in an equally flushable situation as related by a news account we wrote about from Oklahoma. In September 2008, a story from Canada told how another squirrel, entrapped in the household plumbing fixture, freed himself and became airborne toward the little boy who discovered him.

Perhaps that style exit was appropriate, seeing as the Canadian rodent in this situation was a flying squirrel.

But what of Duncan Goose's discovery? Did the squirrel know that Goose, by virtue of his career, had an intimate relationships with toilets: His company manufacturers toilet tissue.

However, it was a nearby hand towel - and not a single-ply roll - that proved to be the little creature's salvation. Goose proferred it as a makeshift ladder to climb and I am sure the little squirrel was at least momentarily grateful.

But why do the denizens of oak and maple end up, every now and again, entrapped in the legacy purportedly left by Sir Thomas Crapper?

This will, perhaps, continue to be a mystery well-worth plumbing.

17 March 2011

Assault by rumor

Now it's getting ugly. Enough already. The news is swirling once again with news of yet another squirrel "attack," this one in Bennington, Vermont.

Hide the kids, folks. While you're at it, hide your elderly relatives too: Both print and broadcast reports even are even making use the "R" word (rabies), a virus not commonly associated with squirrels. Squirrels simply don't carry it, they simply don't harbor or transmit the deadly virus. The only thing going viral here is the report of the Mad Serial Killer Rodent of Vermont, the suspect identified as a furry, gray 2-pound assassin who stalks his human victims and then detonates himself as an out-of-control IED.

These reports liken the squirrel to nature's own Weapon of Mass Destruction. But this sounds more like mass hysteria than anything else - and the media outlets aren't helping. At least the Fox channel right there in Bennington, Vermont had the good sense to include the wizened input of one of the wildlife wardens whose words of reassurance seemed somehow to calm the crazed locals. A newspaper did the responsible thing and quoted a local veterinarian who, pretty much, provided the same reassurance. Hopefully that had a calming influence on residents who probably began seeking refuge in whatever bomb shelters were left over from the Cold War era. (Hey, if they were good enough to ward off the Russians, they should work just fine against the squirrels, no?)

C'mon Vermonters. You know better. Your state is probably one of the northeast's last bastions of nature-friendliness.

Know this as a fact: Squirrels are not predators. They rank, unfortunately, quite low on the food chain which places their status at prey. That's "prey," meaning that someone is out to get them and eat them. Sometimes a hawk, sometimes an owl, sometimes a fox. Even a stray cat or, yes, a sports-minded human toting a loaded gun.

Are killer squirrels are out there, clinging to every tree branch, stalking us, waiting to get us? I think not.

They might well ask us to pray instead of prey. Seems they need it, these days. Ignorance can be deadly. Especially in Vermont.

14 March 2011

Time out for squirrels

OK, who took the missing hour? Thanks to Daylight Saving Time, what was 1 a.m. Sunday became 2 a.m. Sunday or - wait - was it 1 a.m. or was it 2 a.m. or was it 3 a.m.? And when does it go back to 2 a.m. or 1 a.m?? In my head, I keep hearing those notorious 1950s lyrics, "Istanbul was Constantinople, Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople..." So it's really 2 a.m. but now it's 3 a.m. and now it's 4 a.m. and now it's 5 a.m. but maybe it should be 4 a.m. or maybe it was really 1 a.m. after all.

Or maybe I'd be better off in Istanbul.
Or Constantinople.

The squirrels, on the other hand (in this case, the hour hand) don't seem to mind. They've adjusted. Delightfully diurnal, they live year round on Nut Savings Time, impervious to humans' machinations surrounding the world's circadian rhythms.

Rise and shine (a little earlier): Here they come. It's half-after Almond, a quarter to Brazil Nut. It's 20 after Walnut. With spring just days away, the squirrels have been working overtime - who has the luxury of looking at the clock?

But the question remains: Where did that hour go? Some suggest the squirrels stashed it beneath a maple tree or stuffed it high in the branches in one of their dreys and are keeping it there until fall.

Other suggest the squirrels took that hour and cracked it open between their teeth, then swallowed its innards whole.

Or maybe that hour never existed at all. Hours and minutes are, after all, the obsessions of humans, not squirrels. And none of it matters, at least not to them: Somewhere between 6 and 12 hungry squirrels have already been at the back door - or the front door - since the sun came up, making their demands.

"The time is NOW," they are saying.

Perhaps they are right: Seize the day. Or at least, the next nut that comes along.

08 March 2011

Squirrels behaving badly

Talk to any avid gardener or overly protective homeowner and they'll swear that the squirrel is the Charlie Sheen of the wildlife community: A squirrel engages in public mating with reckless serial abandon, has a penchant for crack, particularly when the crack is carefully aimed at the outer coating of addictive acorns, nuts and other hard-shelled yummies. And they dig up dirt. Lots of it. Often on a well-groomed lawn and lovingly planted garden.

Let's not even talk about bird feeders, the seedier side of their long rap sheet.

The squirrel scores "Two and a Half Points" for popularity in some people's playbook. Never mind causing the cancellation of a hit TV show; a squirrel, with a well-aimed chomp of those finely honed teeth, can throw an entire metropolitan area into a sea of blacked-out powerless void. Now that's cancellation power!

OK, so their manners aren't exactly Disney or Beatrix Potter. But remember, even Martha Stewart, with her seemingly impeccable manners and teacup-proper taste, ended up making her exit in a hand-knit prison poncho.

Besides, you don't see many squirrels plastered in full color on the covers of the supermarket tabloids, wearing string bikinis, too-small thongs and oversized, obscene tattoos. You don't see them declaring defiantly, in 42-point headline type: "I don't know the father of my last litter of 8 but I'm keeping them anyway!" or "I'm not sure who gave me mange but I know it's curable!"

Does anyone think to thank them for aerating garden soil with those tiny paws, or for planting the world's giant forests by cracking (and then leaving) all those acorns? How many hours of sweet laughter have resulted from sitting on a Sunday morning watching their treetop antics, especially the young ones first finding the balance in their "tree legs."

They're not perfect but in some eyes, they're pretty close. Squirrels ride high in the trees but have just as much appeal when they're showing their down-to-earth side. They lived on the planet before us and will likely - if we don't destroy the planet - outlive us too. Sorry, Charlie. Say what you will about their naughty antics: The sheen will never be off the squirrel.

28 February 2011

The 2011 SQU'OSCARS? No contest!

Live from the Holly-studded Woods, the Academy of Bushytails has spoken. The stars have all walked the gray carpet and now....it is time to announce recipients of this year's SQU'OSCAR AWARDS.

Films like "The Social Nutwork," "The Black Squirrel," "The King's Chatter" and "True Grey" never had a chance in this field of contenders.

The envelope please:

Best Squirrel in a Nut-Burying Role: Mr. Tilty, for being able to crack, cache and even eat a few walnuts while handling neurological challenges.

Visual Effects: Residents of the nestbox in the maple on the west side of the property, for leaping, climbing and hanging upside down while emptying the suet feeder.

Best Supporting Branch: The sycamore tree on the east end of the property for holding up under strong wind conditions and also under a few fat-butt squirrels.

Music (original score): Doorknob Mama, the matriarch of the yard, for her unusually melodic mating calls.

Costume Design: All the locals, for managing to keep their coats intact and pest-free during a season that usually brings more than a few cases of mange.

And finally:

Squirrel of the Year: This will not be awarded. The walnut statuette has been gnawed beyond recognition. The judges are going back to their nests until next year in the hopes that competitors exhibit better manners in the future.

05 February 2011

Sports fans, are ya ready for some Furball?

Oh, the fur's going to be flying in Dallas, Texas tomorrow.

Never before has there been such gridiron animosity. And never before such gridiron animal-osity. The Green Bay Snackers are about to square off against the Pittsburgh Squealers.

All eyes are on the opening moves: Just how long will the acorn have to be in play before someone scores the first Munchdown - or buries the acorn deep in the opposing team's side of the field?

Will there be penalties for biting the opponent on the back of the neck? What if a player is supposed to pass the acorn to a teammate, but cracks and eats it instead?

And how 'bout that glitzy halftime show: The Squirrel Nut Zippers, newly reunited, playing a compendium of their classics!

And don't forget those notorious, eye-popping commercials: Nutella, Skippy Peanut Butter, Walnut Acres Natural Foods, Audubon Bird Seed and Starbucks Hazelnut Coffee. Plenty of money's been paid to hawk (OK, poor choice of words here) these wares.

So let the game begin and may the better team bask in the victory of the National Furball League. Their NFL trophy, in this case, will necessarily be short-lived. In less than 24 hours, the sun will come up once more and the skirmishes will begin anew on the gridiron we call our backyards.

01 February 2011

The chuck's not chuckling now!

Chuck this!

Snow is piled so deep in metropolitan New York that Malverne Mel, a regional rodent of some notoriety, has ended up taking a powder. Winter’s long frozen shadow has snuffed out his prognosticating prowess.

That's left Malverne Mel on burrowed time. He plans to be a no-show in the great outdoors. Not even Punxsutawney Phil could have predicted this: A winter so bad that even one of his fellow groundhogs can't take it.

That leaves us with a few meager options to discern if we’ll have an early spring:

1. Play the 1978 Andy Gibb hit, “Shadow Dancing,” backwards. (This would be a lot easier in the age of vinyl instead of MP3s). Gibbs’ voice, though barely intelligible, can be heard identifying the date on which the temperature will crawl past the 60-degree mark.

2. Shine a flashlight on a squirrel. If he sees his shadow – and don't worry, he will – you will owe him six more weeks of walnuts. Squirrels don’t care about spring anyway. They’ve been mating since December and scoff anything resembling a calendar. They all know that us fool humans will feed them no matter what the month or season.

3. You can also wait until Feb. 3. That’s the start of the next major holiday, Chinese New Year. This year we celebrate the Year of the Rabbit. Rabbits are lagomorphs, not rodents - but even if the groundhog doesn’t show up, the rabbit will be right on schedule. The Lunar Calendar guarantees it.

Here's the good news: rabbits move so fast they're rarely looking for their own shadows. People born in the Year of the Rabbit are calm, considerate, outgoing, friendly and gregarious. They also do not enjoy conflict. The Year of the Rabbit that lies ahead of us is described, in general, as a quiet year.

With one less groundhog out there to stir things up during a winter that almost everyone seems to be cursing, that rabbit may be just what we need.

Especially if the rabbit turns out to be Bugs Bunny: What we need, now more than ever, is for the rabbit to take one look at the snow - the same snow that's keeping Malverne Mel underground - and tell us, "Th-th-th-th-th-th-that's all folks!"

27 January 2011

Let's chuck it all!

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

How much spring would a groundhog hog if a ground hog could hog spring?

And -- what’s it worth to you, anyway?

The job market, the economy and global warming have left us all feeling pretty much in the hole right now. But consider the plight of Punxsutawney Phil, the iconic prognosticating rodent who is consigned to spend every winter there for most of his life. Market conditions, tastes in music, art and fashion, and even the growing popularity of the iPad have little impact on him. He stays out of chat rooms and you cannot follow him on Twitter. Don’t even try: Down below the ground he goes in autumn. And up he comes every Feb. 2, on the date that celebrates such a rodent-centric occasion.

Punxsutawney Phil is a kind of Reverse Santa Claus. He is equally fat and his arrival is much-anticipated but he is not so jolly, it seems, for having had his sleep disturbed. Cranky and bleary-eyed, this notorious resident of the North Hole possesses no elves or reindeer. And he climbs up into the light from down below instead of sliding down from the roof into the dark. No milk and cookies await him. Wide-eyed children pen him no letters (not even any e-mail or, more appropriately, G-mail). And sadly, the gift he leaves under our collective holiday tree is not always a welcome one.

So do we chuck the winter, Chuck? Do we go whole hog for spring?

The answer is only days away. Meanwhile, for the next few days, tread lightly on the earth where, only a few feet below, the most important player in the Weather Underground is quietly rousing from a long winter’s nap.

Perhaps, this year, it is best to let sleeping chucks lie.

20 January 2011

In appreciation of Appreciation Day

First, the bad news: Jan. 21 can no longer be called Squirrel Appreciation Day. Now, the good news: It’s time to rechristen this sacred occasion as Squirrel Appreciation Day Appreciation Day.

If you really want to do your part, take the next 24 hours to appreciate the fact that 10 years after it was founded by a North Carolina wildlife rehabilitator, this holiday not only still exists but, like an acorn sprouting through the soil, it is branching out and growing strong.

So you're chagrined at being caught unprepared? You forgot to hang the wreaths, to string the holiday lights, and you never bought those plane tickets to grandma’s house?

Worse yet, your stockings are still on your feet, instead of being hung by the chimney - with or without care.

Worry not, you can still head over the river and through the woods – in fact, you should, because that’s where you’ll find all the squirrels.

And you can still leave presents under the tree. That’s the easy part, by the way: Every tree, you see, is as good as the next when your gift list includes walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans and almonds. These are happy one-size-fits-all surprises that don’t need wrapping or bows and aren’t likely to be exchanged one day later for a Sony PlayStation, a Wii or a pair of diamond earrings.

You see, squirrels are easy to appreciate, even if they aren’t particularly appreciative themselves.

On the other hand (which in this case, happens to be the other paw), squirrels don’t seem to mind that their special day falls on the winter calendar sandwiched between Penguin Awareness Day, Jan. 20, an observance that mandates only the most formal attire, and National Blonde Brownie Day, Jan. 22, an occasion that spawns unfettered, nonstop, sugar-laced carbo-loading (but only as a warmup exercise for the next festival, Jan. 23, which is National Pie Day). Squirrels have no problem playing second banana to these holidays (even though National Banana Lover’s Day doesn’t come until sometime in August.) Actually, squirrels like bananas. They could celebrate along with the rest of us.

There is, however, one special celebration going on in Corvallis, Oregon, that has taken squirrel appreciation to new heights – though, in this case, it’s not the treetop kind. A popular local establishment, known as Squirrel’s Tavern, is hosting the third annual fundraiser of the nearby Chintimini Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Chintimini not only appreciates squirrels but takes them in and cares for them, along with assorted other wild neighbors. Celebrants at this fundraiser are cautioned not to drink and drive, and definitely not to drink and drive and feed the squirrels.

For especially overzealous festival observers, an even stronger holiday warning has been posted on the web site of the National Wildlife Federation. It notes that National Squirrel Appreciation Day coincides with another observance: National Hug Day. While the two gestures of affection seem, at first glance, to be a natural pairing for wildlife lovers, don’t be fooled.

"Please don’t combine the two," the web site warns. "Keep your appreciation at a distance."

Otherwise the fur that flies may be your own.

08 January 2011

The walk of fame

Behold the glory of the celebrity signature: A one-of-a-kind, genuine article, unique in all the world, rendered right out there in the great outdoors in the unfortunate impermanence of a snowbank.

But don't be fooled -- this is a real superstar article, nonetheless.

Just as in Hollywood, the big names in our neck of the woods show up wearing glorious fur, except theirs is attached to their bodies for real (and let's face it, they wear it so much better). And just like in Hollywood, these stars are elusive, fast-moving and occasionally camera-shy.

Lacking a Grauman's Chinese Theater as a backdrop, these footprints of the famous are encased instead in snow from a storm that fell from the sky just two days ago. These tiny paws are welcome calling cards, letting everyone check in and announce that everyone, once again, survived.

This is winter's Walk of Fame.

Just don't expect any of these signatures to be offered at auction by Sotheby's. Fast as the snow vanishes, so shall these happy signs of coming and going.

Celebrities, after all, still prefer glorious anonymity, no matter the weather.

02 January 2011

Weight, weight! Don't tell me!

They have big butts, fat necks and haven't stopped eating since the holiday season started more than a month ago. They make no apologies for their excessive avoirdupois: Finding a ready stash of goodies, they would eat it while upside-down, if need be. And often, they do:

Squirrels are going heels-over-head for any chance at a fast-paced, no-holds-barred eating binge, whether at the bird-feeder, the exposed garbage pail or even a picnic table in spring. They'll hang on your back door. Your front door. Your pants leg, even.

It's 2011 and you won't find any self-conscious squirrels sucking in their midsections or squeezing their lard-upholstered back ends into some fashionable workout suit just to impress other squirrels. They are at their fattest at this time of year, which also happens to be the season for squirrel dating and mating. And mid-winter flab does not stand between any squirrel and the chance to have a hot Saturday night any day of the week.

Their motto: "Love thy blubber as thou wouldst love thyself."

And so they have no time for bench presses, laps around the track or even crunching their abs. As they shuttle between orgies that orbit around either food or fertility rituals, these libidinous little lardbutts are playing to the point of exhaustion, as if the Roman Empire never fell at all.

Sooner or later, I suspect, they'll weigh in (so to speak) and tell the rest of us how things went. They'll find most of us waiting to hear - in the far end of the parking lot outside the fitness club.