Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

July 10, 2007

Steward Little

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:21 pm

  As far as I know, Johann Christian Polycarp Erxleben never visited “Amerika.” He was far too busy becoming the father of veterinary science and it probably took a large part of his daily life just to write out his monumental name on horse pill prescriptions. In the true tradition of 18th century medical men, he was also a naturalist.  Using specimens, the German scientist described many species of mammals from the exotic Spotted Hyena and Harp Seal to the Chital Deer and the Indian Giant Squirrel.

  When a tiny speck of a squirrel reached his desk in 1777, he looked it over and decided to call it Tamiasciurus – “the Shade-tailed Steward who takes care of provisions.” Since the specimen hailed from the Hudson’s Bay area of Nord Amerika, he gave it the species name of hudsonicus.  He dubbed it with the common name of Red Squirrel and declared “Mein Gott das iz Goot,” to his assistant, “let’s get a beer.”

  O.K., I admit that I made up that very last part just for the dramatic flare, but actually Erxleben’s squirrel doesn’t need any dramatic license to spice it up.  The Red Squirrel is a power packed mini dynamo. One of our smallest native squirrels, this sprite barely tops 12 inches in length (4 inches of which is tail). Take a look at this photo, and you’ll see why it’s called a red squirrel.  The red-brown body is accentuated by a white belly and a flashy little white eye ring. An appropriate black racing stripe divides the belly white from the red sides to add a touch of pizzazz. All this décor is usually reduced to a blur as the animal streaks about on its daily rounds.

  You will rarely see a Red Squirrel at rest, which means you rarely get a good look at one. When not engaged in gathering food, they are engaged in storing it or running about between the place where the food was and where it will be. The designation as a “caretaker of provisions” is an extremely appropriate moniker.  Red Squirrels horde pine and spruce cones (their favorite food) as well as mushrooms and walnuts. These hordes can be in the form of burrow stashes or items carefully wedged into limb crotches. Here’s a picture of a walnut stored in my front yard Holly bush. Also, I’ve seen apples stored in the same way.

  Another common sign that pointing to the presence of these Steward Littles are the distinctive feeding remains.  Look at this photo and you’ll see a Blue Spruce cone and a Walnut that have suffered the onslaught of a Red Squirrel’s incisors. The scales of Evergreen cones are systematically plucked off in order to get at the seeds – leaving only the core and a few top scales in place. Tough shelled walnuts pose another eating challenge. Lacking the heavier nipping equipment of larger squirrels, our diminutive friend has to open up four small holes to get at the nut meat chambers found within. (Big squirrels tend to leave a walnut with two large holes.)

  Yesterday afternoon, I followed – or attempted to follow – the antics of an individual Red Squirrel in my back yard.  He worked his way out on a walnut limb and cut off one of the developing green husked nuts.  With the nubile nut in his mouth, he turned and took a circuitous route though the branches. He went from limb to limb and spanned the gap between trees with effortless leaps and monkeylike precision.

  On the fifth tree over, a projecting twig caught his attention and he decided to place his find in the small angle under it.  Several unsuccessful attempts to wedge the prize into place were followed by a re-positioning of the nut and a new effort. I watched this procedure from below and thought that I was undetected.  This proved to be a faulty assumption, for suddenly the squirrel disappeared around the trunk and temporarily placed the nut in a knothole.  He swiftly returned to my side of the tree and proceeded to deliver an agitated verbal blast in my direction to tell me that my presence was not appreciated.

  In the North Country, the Red Squirrel is better known as the Chickaree.  This name literates the agitated sound made by these self sure rodents. My squirrel started his tirade in usual fashion with a series of high “Chicks” in regular sequence. Each “chick” racked his tiny body with a convulsion and changed the position of his tail. While in voice delivery mode, his front feet were not even in contact with the bark, so they were held straight out as if casting a hex upon me. Eventually, the string of “chicks” was accented by guttural “chucks” as things accelerated. Finally, all restraint lost, the creature exploded into an extended “rheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” and bounded off.

  With that stream of blue air I was put into my place. The Red Squirrel may be small, but he can swear like a sailor.

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