The squirrel is an ubiquitous inhabitant of suburbitat, yet most people actually know very little about them.
Colorado, my home state, is home to three kinds of tree squirrels. The rusty red, fox squirrel; the Abert’s squirrel which has a striking black or salt-and-pepper gray coat and magnificent ear-tufts; and the smaller but noisier pine squirrel, or chickaree.
Abert’s and fox squirrels are about the same size (up to 20 inches long and two pounds in weight), although Abert’s has longer fur, and therefore looks larger. The pine squirrel is much smaller—14 inches long and weighing only about nine ounces.
The Fox squirrel is most familiar in streamside and urban woodlands, especially on the eastern plains. Abert’s squirrel is resident of ponderosa pine forests, and the pine squirrel (or chickaree) occupies high timber.
All three tree squirrels build nests of leaves or needles, depending on habitat. Predators of the tree squirrels vary with habits and habitat. Fox squirrels spend some time on the ground and are killed by coyotes and foxes. Magpies, hawks and snakes eat nestlings. Martens are a major predator on pine squirrels. The forest-dwelling goshawk eats Abert’s squirrels.
Fox squirrels eat fruit, nuts and buds, and bury nuts for winter (and because they are forgetful, they plant a lot of trees!). Abert’s squirrel does not hoard food, but eats whatever part of its host tree, ponderosa pine, is available in season: cones and inner bark of twigs. Pine squirrels harvest and store vast quantities of cones (spruce, fir, Douglas-fir and lodgepole pine), often beneath a feeding area.
Tree squirrels have two litters of two to five young; one litter in spring, the other in early summer. Gestation is five weeks for chickarees, and up to seven weeks for their larger cousins.
(Source – Colorado Division of Wildlife) http://wildlife.state.co.us/
When my second cousin, Max, was a child he lived in Bali and was the self-appointed guide of Western tourists visiting the monkey forest in Ubud. http://www.monkeyforestubud.com/ “The monkeys have kings,” Max told me. Each of the monkey kings are large, standing head and shoulders above other monkeys (as the now fully grown Max does among men). The forest is divided into distinct kingdoms, and sometimes the monkeys actually war over territory. “If you visit the Monkey forest,” Max told me, “and if the monkeys rush you for food, just give it to them, never hold the food up over your head unless you want a bunch of monkeys fighting over food on top of your head!”
At my house, entering our front garden is a bit like visiting the monkey forest.
I confess that we do not adhere to the rule “never feed a wild animal” when it comes to squirrels. In fact, they are so tame that that my wife, Kathy, feeds them out of her hand, particularly one female (or several?) that she calls “Mama Squirrel.” Thus it is likely that our squirrels will size you up to see if you have food, or even rush you like monkeys when you enter our garden.
Unlike monkeys however, the squirrel’s world seems to be one with no political organization whatsoever. One of my favorite poets W.B.Yeats wrote about the anarchy of squirrels, as well as their seeming indifference to human delusions of supremacy, in his poem An Appointment. The poem was written at a time when the poet was discouraged about his own political career.
Being out of heart with government I took a broken root to fling where the proud, wayward squirrel went, taking delight that he could spring. And he, with that low whinnying sound that is like laughter, sprang again and so to the other tree at a bound…And threw him up to laugh on the bough; no government appointed him!
There is another political reference to squirrels in Hal Borland’s Sun Dial of the Seasons, which points to the (potential) universality of conservation ethics.
You can’t be suspicious of a tree, or accuse a bird or a squirrel of subversion, or challenge the ideology of a violet.
The fox squirrel in the West, as well as the eastern grey squirrel seem to have adapted to—even thrived in—environments altered by human beings without being altered themselves.
The simple, basic nature of the squirrel (squirrel-anity?) seems virtually incorruptible and altogether cheerful.
Would that it were so for human beings as well!
Jim Tolstrup is the Executive Director of the High Plains Environmental Center in Loveland, Colorado: “Restoring nature where we live, work and play.” Become a Fan of HPEC on Facebook, or visit our website for more information www.suburbitat.org
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