Archive for February, 2008

An Out of Place Red Squirrel

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

At first light there was an audible scuffle heard outside by the bird feeder. Cardinals are the usual first shift at the bird feeder. However, this over-sized finch cannot dislodge the cover to the galvanized garbage can that houses the fatty riches of sunflower seeds. The storage can, next to our deck, sits only twelve feet from the bird feeder.

Suddenly a red squirrel popped out of the can, leaped onto our deck, climbed a two-foot tall terracotta urn and disappeared into the three-inch opening. Obviously not only was this rust-colored rodent disturbing the peace in jostling garbage can covers, but I busted this squirrel. . . caught in the act of relocating the stolen goods. Out of sight only for a moment, it reappeared and in a flash it was back in the garbage can for another mouthful of seeds.
This little expert in storing food, which incidentally is a rather uncommon survival strategy among mammals, was creating a clever midden of seed right in front of our eyes.

Enough is enough. I flew out the back door, wearing flannel pajamas and mukluks and ran around the side of house hoping to terrify the duo of red squirrels. As I came around the corner, one squirrel took to the treetops and tight-roped its way very rapidly to freedom. I caught a glimpse of the other squirrel dash to the pottery urn and disappear into the safety of its darkness. Without hesitation, I scooped up an empty plastic pickled herring bucket that was sitting on the deck and clamped it over the opening of the squirrel’s hideout.

“Got you, you little pugnacious and pompous blush-colored rodent-fink,” I triumphantly shouted, “I’ve got you now!” I picked up the tall container and held it victoriously over my head in celebrating in my own Wimbledon winning stance. I jigged on the deck hoping Nancy was admiring her heroic man and his efforts at keeping yet another rodent insurgent from our little home in the woods.

After my momentary showboating, I stopped. Now what do I do? I really didn’t want to kill this sassy squirrel but I did want to teach it a lesson that it should not mess with our seeds.

I wondered if the miasma of any lingering herring juice fixed in the bucket might create enough misery for the squirrel. Gleefully, I thought of a just punishment. I would take this squirrel in a jug for a little walk and relocate it to a new site. Yes that was it a site not familiar for these forest dwellers.

Most of my encounters with these hyper little squirrels tend to take place in the northern mixed stands of hardwoods and mixed conifers where I hunt deer every November. No matter how quiet or still I sit, these wide-eyed, sprightly squirrels almost always figure me out and then loudly chirr a staccato of barks and spits at me. I am convinced that they are swearing mightily at me. Up and down the tree, the squirrel moves in lightening jerks. This can go on for some time and I suspect that the outburst is recognizable by every deer in the area as some sort of warning.

Finally this little squirrel was going to pay for my pent up frustration for not only seed thievery but for previous loud deer warnings. Yes, this poor little marauder and thief was going to pay.

I hoisted the jug up on my shoulder and headed north, past the two woodsheds and out into the open snow covered field. I walked almost to the township road, not caring what any passer bys might think of a hatless bare handed, pajama-clad, smirking man trudging through the snow with a pottery urn, capped with a pickled herring bucket, on his shoulder.

Finally, when I was within a one hundred feet of the road and a forty-acre corn stubble field, I stopped, looked around and feeling satisfied I set the urn down. This would do fine. I would release the squirrel here and watch its next move. This species, hudsonicus, speaks of the forest. It is not a prairie or savanna dweller. How would it react in such a treeless expanse?

Carefully I laid the vase on its side and took the herring bucket away. The squirrel refused to come out. So after covering it with snow, except for the opening, to hide it from passing car traffic, I headed back to the house and stopped a hundred yards away to watch. Nothing. Not even a little curious peek. Shivering in my PJs, I retreated back to our warm house. The eventual pattern of the squirrel’s tracks would have to unfold the tale of the squirrel.

A couple hours later, Nancy and I were driving out the driveway to do an errand. I looked out in the field. There I spied the rufous rodent sitting upright about 15 feet from the vase. I stopped the car on the road and the little fellow immediately retreated. . .back into the sanctity of the vase! I wondered if this little guy had grown fond of its prairie clay igloo. So in a few minutes, I am going to take old Taiga for his walk and check out the story left in the fine print of its spoor. Or I might find it still out there unwilling to make the wide-open crossing to the woods. There are a couple of local red-tailed hawks that would find the squirrel tasty.

It was after dark when we returned home and I wondered if the perky little fellow was still in the clay prison. Was it sleeping contently in a bed of sunflower seeds? Perhaps it was frozen, curled in a ball of fur.

The thought of unjust squirrel torture kept sleep at bay. And when it finally came, I wrestled with the bedcovers most of the night.

The next morning I dressed and booted and headed out to see if I could find a story of a great escape. The story was clear. The little fellow’s trail showed that it had chosen the woods east of the field as its destination. There would be no slow evolution towards a prairie dwelling squirrel. Besides, for that to happen there would have to be another hapless squirrel of the opposite sex.

The tracks showed that the squirrel had made forays out from the vase, no further than10-20 yards. The spoor resembled spokes spreading out from the hub of a wheel. Finally, it was clear that the squirrel began by running for the oak woods that lies about 75 yards from the vase. The impressions were notable leaps betraying a fast dash to the oaken cover. There was no dilly-dallying here. Finally when the squirrel was within twenty yards or so of the woods, the pattern was more so the traditional hopping pattern of an easily foraging squirrel.

Since that day I have only seen one red squirrel. Waves of gray squirrels look for dropped seed and look longingly at the feeder above them. They cannot figure out how to negotiate the piece of stove pipe that hangs directly below the bird feeder perched on top of a pole. Cautious as a swamp buck, I spot a slightly heavier fox squirrel sneaking towards the feeding area. But only one red squirrel is spotted. But since I cannot tell individual red squirrels apart, since they all look alike, I don’t know if this is “Freedom” or “Urny.”

I’ve got to remember to retrieve the pickled herring bucket from out in the field. Even in these parts, where herring is part of nearly everyone’s winter, the red looks out of place in a prairie.