Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

January 10, 2010

The Essence of Squirrelhood

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:47 am

There’s nothing dishonest about Fox Squirrels. They don’t bother trying to be suave or sophisticated, because they are not. They are nimble, yes. Adaptable, you bet. Free from anxiety, no. At times it seems that everything on the planet is out to smite them. Predators, disease, Hondas, hunters, accidents, weather, and at least 34 other things are listed as potential sources of death in the squirrel survival book. Unfortunately, they can’t read. So, instead of restricting their avoidance tactics to the listed “dangerous things,” they simply distrust everything -thus the high anxiety level.

The only thing which overrides this general distrust is the desire to eat and the drive to make little squirrels. In these categories they are quite upfront. “Eat, live hardy, fear everything, and die before you need a walker” could well be the Fox Squirrel motto. It’s a long motto to be sure. Personally, I believe the Klingon mantra “this is a good day to die” would be easier to say when a car is bearing down upon you.  Let’s not get the wrong idea about squirrels, however. Even though they are resigned to death, they do not embrace it until it embraces them. They employ all their nimble and adaptable powers to avoid it. If they end up looking awkward while skirting the issue of squirrelius mortemus , so what. It’s better to be silly than be supper (hey, that could be another motto).

I offer up two squirrel related incidences which, if they don’t prove my point, at least go a long way toward hinting at it.  They involve two situations in which the squirrel was being, well, a squirrel. Both are unremarkable, but telling.

First up is a Fox Squirrel track pattern in the snow which exhibits a moment of great anxiety concerning a stick. This track (see below) was laid onto a layer of snow where a neighborhood squirrel regularly crosses over a frozen canal. Several sticks were poking up through the ice and one of them stood about 6 inches over the surface – its blackness standing in stark contrast to the surrounding whiteness. Although it appears that this particular squirrel passes this stick multiple times over the course of a given week, the thing suddenly became ominous one day.  The track pattern says it all.

Take a good look at this picture and you’ll see that the squirrel approached the danger stick from the right. Starting off with the typical lopping gait, the nervous creature stopped about four feet away and proceeded at a slow walk toward the mystery object. The walking pattern is similar to that made by opossums and raccoons where the front and hind foot marks are paired. You can imagine the animal advancing step by step with its head rocking back and forth – like those apes approaching the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The funniest thing about this pattern is where our squirrel resorts to a series of bottom shuffles in order to cover the last 12 inches before making contact.  At the end of this genuflection walk, the squirrel probably touched the “monolith,” mentally noted that it was just a stick, then galloped off to find another way to die. What was this squirrel thinking? Who knows? If that stick had turned out to be a venomous snake then…better silly than supper.

Last week we experienced the first big snow of the season and this provided an opportunity for my second squirrel observation. The storm hit about mid-day. Most critters seek shelter in such a situation and wait until it passes. I spied a chunky Fox Squirrel defying the elements as he engaged in maple seed harvesting (see photo below and here) while the storm was hitting at full intensity. Her tree, a Norway maple, is normally reserved as a winter food source by the regional squirrels. The seeds have dangled in position since late summer, but for some reason this Fox Squirrel decided that this storm signaled the start of the harvest season.

In this case, I am not accusing the squirrel of silliness. In hindsight, I believe she knew that the storm would end up laying down a heavy layer of snow. Perhaps she sensed that food would be harder to get in the near future and was exhibiting, in fact, some sort of weather prognostication. I am also marveling at her plucky exhibit of dexterity. There are very few creatures that can eat while hanging upside down by the smallest of toe-holds. Chickadees do it all the time, but they only weight a few ounces. Fox Squirrels, on the other hand, weight around the 1.5 pound range. This one was cheating death by facing it head on.

To this squirrel, and to all squirrels, I tip my hat to your pure squirreliness.


  1. What a delightful post. I laughed, I chuckled, and I smiled an awful lot. My co-workers must be wondering what’s going on in my corner of the office!

    Comment by Ellen — January 12, 2010 @ 1:57 pm

  2. I so love squirrels! They are completely neurotic, yet somehow seem like such cheerful little creatures. Have you seen the Ice Age movies? The sabertooth squirrel character cracks me up because they somehow managed to capture that spastic, twitchy, neurotic side of squirreldom, just as those tracks in the snow do.

    Great post. I needed the laughs!

    Comment by Holly — January 13, 2010 @ 6:51 pm

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