Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 10, 2011

Death of a Squirrel

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:14 pm

It was an unusual morning right from the get-go. It is customary, when at Dollar Lake, to drink our morning coffee out on the porch. There is no better way to start the day than to watch the fog lift off the still waters and witness the first rays of the rising sun strike the upper portions of the trees on the opposite side. It had been raining hard all night, but the daybreak looked promising and the clouds were parting somewhat. Upon grabbing my shoes to head outside (I am not a slipper person), I was surprised to find an acorn in the left one. Needless to say, it was not there when I took them off the previous night.  You don’t just get a large nut in your shoe and not notice it (like having an elephant in your pajamas). Because my shoes were inside the cabin, we can rule out a natural nut fall. No, this acorn was apparently a gift from the resident Deer mouse – a polite little creature that sticks to the high shelves and midnight corners inside the cabin.

The mouse had plenty of opportunities to gift such an acorn in the past, so it was odd that he chose this particular morning. He usually eats them and leaves the empty shell husks somewhere. In retrospect, the distinctive odor issuing from such a piece of human wear might have prompted him to place a deodorant nut in the shoe like a pomander in a drawer of linen. Nut aside, I ventured to the porch to view the dripping wet lake scene before me.

For the past few days, I have spooked a sleek black (gray) squirrel seeking white oak acorns in the yard upon opening the door. The door sticks a bit, so it pops when opened and causes the frightened rodent to speed to the safety of the nearest tree. There was no black squirrel on this morning, but a Fox Squirrel occupied the space instead. This too was a bit odd, since the Gray Squirrels outnumber the Foxes in this neck of the northern woods and I rarely see the latter type.

A chipmunk, cheeks stuffed with his share of acorns, gave me an especially guilty glance before dashing off to the shed.  Chipmunks always look guilty and nervous, of course, but this one seemed to be suffering from the effects of one too many espressos. Then I noticed it. There in the middle of the yard was the still silent form of a dead black squirrel (see below). Anywhere else, this would have been a common sight. The local roads are paved with nut-crazed flattened squirrels, but in my yard only the full formed nut-crazed variety are common.

My first thought was that it was shot, but there were no sounds issuing from the neighborhood that morning (no one was really around anyway).  The second thought was that it was stuck by a car and crawled to the spot to die, but in order for that to happen it would of had to drag itself over a half mile from the nearest real traffic road in the vicinity. Any squirrel that could drag itself that far with mortal injuries would be worthy of some sort of award (the golden nut memorial award). But in reality, cars don’t usually deliver wounds to creatures such as small delicate black squirrels, they deliver instant death. It looked as if this wet critter landed dead where he lay.

I ruled out the fox squirrel as a culprit (and, it goes without saying, the chipmunk and the mouse). If there is antagonism between these squirrel species it is the Gray Squirrels that attack the Fox Squirrels.  This left the death issue with two probable causes: lack of co-ordination or predatory influence. Squirrels do fall from time to time. Considering all the magnificent leaps they perform on a daily basis it is a wonder that more of them don’t come crashing down. If distracted by texting then this makes sense, but I know “my” squirrel doesn’t own a phone. The lack of a thumb also rules this out.

The final answer, at least what I think is the final answer, was produced by my forensic examination (after completing my coffee break, by the way). This little fellow had two pin prick holes in his hide – one on his thigh and the other in his gut. The gut puncture produced some internal bleeding. I believe this guy was attacked and severely wounded by one of the local predatory birds and either escaped or was dropped from a great height. Either way, we would end up with a dead rodent. The rain probably prevented the predator from recovering its prey, thus leaving me with the second nut-related gift of the morning.

There is one good suspect to answer for the guilty party. A Red-shouldered Hawk has been very active around the lake over the past week (see a long distance shot above). Red-shoulders are forest hawks which typically take medium sized mammals, snakes, and frogs for lunch. Our resident bird makes no attempt at secrecy and frequently announces itself – living up to the noisy reputation of the species.  On the morning of the “squirrel incident” the bird was silent, but every morning for the next two days, it was as vocal as ever. Listen to this set of Red-shouldered Hawk calls recorded at the lake (you will not see the hawk but should be able to appreciate the beautiful autumn scenery)

Without producing an actual bloody claw, I believe we have our squirrel killer on the strong evidence of motive and opportunity. This was no crime, however. The bird is only to be condemned on its sloppy technique and the squirrel for being edible.  Case closed – for now.

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