Cirque du écureuil

 During this spring, while on hiatus from gainful employment, I have had the opportunity to study the habits of local wildlife and ponder their actions and motives.

We have a large variety of birds that come to the feeders and birdbath; doves, jays, blackbirds, robins, cardinals, and the lowly sparrow, to name a few.  A week or so ago I watched as some young robins, wearing a full coat of stubby feathers, join the ranks of adults feeding in my yard.  They would hop behind the parental unit, crying pitifully for someone to feed them, while the folks would ignore them and gorge themselves on fat night crawlers If they made eye contact with mom and dad, they would crouch down, flutter their wings and screech through wide open beaks–just as they had when they were still in the nest. Of course, the adults would feel sorry for them and give them either a fresh worm or whatever worm they themselves just swallowed.  Eventually, the teenagers got the message, and learned to hunt for themselves…with one exception, I noticed.  One young bird still followed the older one around, whining to be fed long after the others had gained independence. I think mom was finally fed up and told Junior so by shoving a beak-full of  grass into his throat instead of worms, then flew away.  It was like when a teenage kid complains that there’s nothing to eat in the fridge, whines at mom to cook him something, so she fries up a batch of liver and onions and says, “You want food? There! Eat it and shut up!”

And though I love feeding and watching birds,  what I enjoy most is watching the baby squirrels come down from the nest to face the bright new world. No bigger than a teacup and with a scrawny plume for a tail, this is the stage in their lives where they most resemble a rat. I try not to think of  that comparison, as I have never seen a wild rat circus, nor would I care to, and if I do encounter one I’m sure I’d be scarred for life and dream scary dreams of rats in tutus dancing to Michael Jackson singing “Ben”.

But I digress.( It does sound a bit Disney-esque, doesn’t it, though?)

In the huge oak tree in my front yard lives a family of squirrels.Three of them, the babies (or “kits”), began their journey out of the nest.  I sat on my glider on the porch and watched how each of them slowly made their way down the bark of the tree and crouched at the bottom, staring at all the wonders of nature around them, including the greatest invention of Mother Nature, the sidewalk and street. After looking around for about 5 minutes they turned around and began climbing back, nose to tail like a string of railcars, up Mount Oak to return to the safety of  their nest some 50 feet up.

About 10 feet up the tree, kit #2 goosed the leading kit with his nose.  Kit #1, feeling a cold wet nose poking his little butt, squeaked and jumped backward, bringing all three of them back down to the ground in a heap. This sparked some adolescent energy in them, and suddenly a bundle of fur started writhing and rolling across the yard.

I once went shopping at Goodwill when the big “All Clothing, 99 Cents Each” sale was going on.  In the back aisle where the coats were located, I saw three women tussling over a vintage fur stole–you know, the kind with the heads and tails attached of the unfortunate creatures whose fur made up the stole. I think it may have been genuine mink or fox or wharf rat, I’m not certain.  But there was certainly a cat fight going on over this shedding, moth-eaten piece of preserved wildlife.

That incident came to mind as I watched this pas de trois  performed before me. Occasionally a complete squirrel would leap from the fray, only to be caught up again in the act.  Poetry in motion!  A veritable Cirque du Soleil, without the creepy clowns and instead of  monotonously eerie music, squeaks and chatters from the ball of kits accentuated the gymnastics.  This went on for about 5 minutes, then one squirrel, seeing an opening took the opportunity to leap onto the tree.

Now the problem with squirrels  is that the kits grow so fast, there’s no time for them to go to school and learn the basic rules of  physics and gravity.  Their parents won’t teach them; they’re too busy raising another batch of babies or getting run over by a lumbering delivery truck in the street or being shot at by someone wielding a BB gun if they get too close to the bird feeder.  If they did have time for elementary education, the following illustration would be the one most used in squirrel school:


squirrel theory

AND  if they had  taken classes in  Squirrel Physics, this would illustration would have been shown as well:

improper squirrel theory

The  free kit hunched down and sprung up toward the tree, about 6 feet away. Somewhere along his route, in which his speed reached a Mach I, either he was hit by a wind shear or miscalculated his landing approach, and hit the tree head-on. The impact dropped him like a rock to the ground, where he lay quite still.  His siblings ceased their fighting, ran up and sniffed at his inert body, then scrambled up the tree (probably telling Mommie, “Sammy’s dead! I didn’t do it! “).

But no, Sammy wasn’t dead.  Obviously squirrels have developed an extremely tough skull, because the kit sprang up, looked around, then skittered up the tree, no worse for the wear, much to my relief. I didn’t want to have to clear a dead baby squirrel out of my yard.

Since then I have witnessed two more  proofs of  a squirrel’s resiliency.  Across the street from my house a squirrel lost his footing on a twig in an oak tree, and fell at least 60 feet, hitting the curb then bouncing back onto to lawn. He lay there for about 5 minutes, then got up and scampered away.  And one squirrel in my own backyard escaped sure death in the jaws of a feral cat by biting it on the nose. It( the squirrel)was ragged and bleeding when it limped away, but a few days later I saw the same squirrel, it’s tail bent and chunks of fur missing, hanging upside down on my bird feeder, munching away on sunflower seeds.

I don’t think we will ever have to worry about decimating the squirrel population in our city by acts of nature.  But we  will keep the population in check as long as there are those greatest inventions of Nature, sidewalks and streets, and lumbering delivery trucks.


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