Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

November 23, 2007

A Home for the Holidays

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:28 pm

  One thing I am thankful for this Thanksgiving season is the fact that I played absolutely no part in constructing the dwelling place I currently call home. If I had, my roof would surely have collapsed by now or the bathroom light switch would somehow be needed to operate the kitchen toaster.  No, somebody else put the finishing touches on my place back in 1951 and for the past twenty years all major work has been done by professional hands. I know I could never build any kind of life-sustaining structural element from scratch without using wood glue, duct tape or twist ties. There is no instinctual nest building skill within my persona.

  My thoughts ventured to this topic while visiting my brother-in-law’s house on Thanksgiving Day. As the family gathered around the television to watch the Detroit Lions complete their traditional holiday defeat, my eyes wandered to the back yard and fixed on a squirrel at the 10 yard line (ten yards from the window, that is).  A team of three fox squirrels had been coming and going all afternoon, but my interest was directed at one individual stuffing white oak leaves into his mouth.  After folding over the edges to create a leafy envelope, he scurried up the smooth gray trunk of a beech tree and out of immediate sight.  He appeared moments later and repeated the effort. I stepped outside to follow his route this time and saw that he was adding to a substantial leaf nest about 50 ft from the ground. 

  There was a scattering of snow on the ground and the daytime temperature hovered below freezing.  It would be tempting to assume that the recent influx of winter weather prompted him to create a snug winter retreat, but that would be wrong. Truth is, this squirrel began work on his winter home much earlier in the season. He heeds the heralding call issued by shortening daylight, not ambient temperatures.

  These arboreal rodents do most of their nest building during the summer when the little squirrlets are expected. The warm season nests are the direct instinctual result of long days and short nights inoculated with a fair amount of hormones.  They are loosely constructed affairs, often built far out on the branches to allow for free air flow and ventilation.

    Late in the summer, tighter ball-shaped structures are constructed closer to the trunk or within grape vine tangles. Given the option, most Fox Squirrels will switch to tree cavities as their winter retreat.  A cultured suburban environment offers little in this category, so leaf nests are the norm. These late season affairs adhere to a different set of building codes.  They are typically made of interwoven twigs and leaves with a soft inner liner of dog hair, moss, bark or grasses.  My busy builder was merely adding to his winter home- like putting up the storm windows or changing the furnace filter – the insulated walls were already well done. Unlike the Lion defense against the Packers, this squirrel was performing his home duty with practiced precision.

  In the interest of providing a bit of useless trivia, it might interest you to know that a squirrel nest is officially called a “drey.” This knowledge will come in handy on your next crossword puzzle. The overwintering home of another rodent, the muskrat, has no official name and can be properly called a lodge, a cabin, a den, or a house. These structures are far more impressive than the aerial nests of their furry tailed kin. (O.K., not a great segue, but it was the only way I could get to this next part of the discussion within this limited space).    

  The day before leaving for our Thanksgiving visit, I paid a visit to a little town just south of Monroe – near the mouth of Otter Creek where I-75 crosses it.  Here a muskrat village of impressive proportions has risen from the dead lotus bed there. Take a look here and you’ll see no fewer than nineteen muskrat houses pimpling the shallows within an area of an acre or so.  

  As seen from the vantage point of the South Otter Creek overpass, each lodge is centered in a circle of cleared lotus. They look like meteors lodged within their impact craters.  It is quite obvious that each furry engineer used the plants that were immediately adjacent to their individual construction sites.  They were, in other words, using common -albeit instinctual -sense.

  Muskrats begin building their new houses in mid October and they continue to pile on new layers well into November. They build several kinds of structures, but their winter cabins are the largest and most dramatic. A freshly made lodge often towers four or five feet over the water.  The entire structure is made of alternating layers of muddy bottom debris and cut sections of cat-tail, or in this case, lotus stems and leaves.

  Several entrances are cut into the mass from under the water level and they lead to a series of tunnels and snug chambers within.  A dozen or more ‘rats may take up winter residence in one lodge apartment as long as tempers allow.  These homes will continue to provide solid shelters for a year or more – often far longer than the life of the occupants themselves.

  I’m pretty sure my Fox Squirrel will be secure in his single winter drey and will pass the cold season comfortably on stored acorns and bird feed.

  The Otter Creek Muskrat subdivision, however, is an example of a development doomed to failure. It is the result of too many ‘rats attempting to scratch out a living on too little real estate. Nature’s strict building codes of will be harshly enforced by famine, disease and predation. The ‘rats will be forced into a hardscrabble existence as they compete for limited winter food resources.  A nice warm house for the holidays is one thing, but putting enough turkey on the table is quite another.

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