Tribute to National Squirrel Appreciation Day, January 21

My right-handed uncle used to call left-handed baseball pitchers “squirrely”.  As a youngster, I thought “squirrely” meant “nuts” or “goofy” until we moved to the Oregon woods and I observed the crafty little critters first hand.

I enjoy watching a variety of wildlife from my kitchen. A squirrel leaps up to the bay window screen, clings spread-eagle, and glares at me with dark, beady eyes, demanding more peanuts. Startles the beejeebers out of me!

In winter, I watch bushy-tailed squirrels race for tossed peanuts and skid on the icy deck only to slide past the nut.

Western gray squirrels are patient, intelligent, determined, and use logic to pilfer seed from a bird feeder.

Our first feeder was wood, painted as a Western general store with a cloth sack of flour and round yellow barrel in front. Our first mistake was to hang it from a branch too close to the tree trunk. The squirrel anchored his back feet on the lodgepole pine trunk and easily stretched out with his front feet to the general store door for the seed.

Squirrel and bird feeder

Three weeks later I find the flour sack and yellow barrel on the ground and one corner of the store chewed to a sliver. We move it to the middle of a wire strung between two trees and suspend it three feet above the deck bench. We also suspend a suet cage on the same wire.

The squirrel studies the new position. He tries to walk the highwire, topples over clinging upside down, and falls to the ground. He repeats his attempts again and again, all ending in failure.

Time to try a different approach. Poised on the deck bench below the suspended general store, he leaps straight up and falls down. Like a cat, he always lands on his feet. He jumps again

and again. Finally, his front feet clutch the feeder roof and his hind feet grasp the bottom edge. Firmly planted on the store front, he is unable to reach the seeds at his belly.

A few more leaps and his depth perception is on target. He also opens the suet cage and runs off with half a cake of suet.

We move the suet cage to an arm attached to the kitchen window frame. The little acrobat launches himself from the top of the barbecue four feet away to the suet, and both swing like a pendulum. He drops the cage to the ground, opens it, and runs off with another cake of suet.

Squirrel on suet

Our second feeder was a small wooden box with a short shelf as a bird perch. The top opened to pour in seed that filtered out the bottom through a clear plastic, half-moon shaped opening. The plastic shield slid in and out for easy cleaning. The feeder box screwed on to the top of a seven-foot metal pole firmly secured in the ground.

For a few days, the squirrel is unable to reach the seed. The little gymnast quickly learns to scoot up the metal pole as if he has suction cups on his feet, but he bangs his head under the shelf. Dazed, he falls to the ground. Eventually he discovers that if he stops short of ramming his head, he can stretch his feet around the side of the feeder and pull himself up over the edge. Except on icy mornings when he leaps up the pole and s-l-o-w-l-y slides back down to the ground.

His sharp claws dig under the half-moon opening to reach seed in the back of the box. A few days later he masters the art of lifting the lid without it dropping on his head. It is comical to see his rear end and bushy tail hang out from under the lid. Not satisfied with this position, he rips out the plastic half-moon shield, tosses it to the ground, and gains easy access to all the seed.

Squirrel on a bird feeder

Our third, and present, feeder accommodates squirrels and birds, large and small. Lee built an edge around a 12×18-inch platform with three 1-1/2-inch posts on each side to support a slanted copper roof. Both ends are open. It took the squirrel a few days to figure out he could easily enter the feeder from the open ends instead of squeezing his little body between the side posts.

Squirrel in bird feeder

Gray squirrels do not play well with others, nor do they share seeds, nuts and water. They chase each other, flickers, downy woodpeckers and Steller’s jays off the feeder. When a jay glides down to the deck, the squirrel pounces on him from the feeder. The squirrel chases a male quail away from picking seeds that fall on the ground under the bird feeder. The quail zigzags through the tall grass with the squirrel zigzagging in pursuit. The chase ends once the quail leaves the squirrel’s territory. The squirrel also pounces on the back of another squirrel drinking from the birdbath.

Squirrels quench their thirst frequently. Before we provided a heated birdbath, one squirrel stood on the frozen ice, and with sharp teeth bit a piece of ice at the edge. He held the icicle in his front feet as if it were a Popsicle and bit off drinks from the tip. Another squirrel bit the frozen edge and tossed aside the icy disk on top in order to drink the water underneath.

Not all squirrels sport the usual silver gray coat and bushy tail. Some tails are thin and sparse, short or long or missing hair on one side or the tip. Sun glints off the bronze-tinted coat of a Douglas tree squirrel with a white stripe down the middle of its tail. Another has two white front feet like socks.

Squirrel resting

Squirrels are especially feisty late fall through early spring. One squirrel with a white blaze on his nose has raw, red skin around one eye; another has raw, red flesh on its forehead and around its neck like a collar; and a third is missing fur from its neck, shoulder and hind leg.

Severe cases could be mange. One squirrel, barren of fur from head to mid-section, looks like a sheared sheep. His ears stand out as if they were little horns. Ugly as a sewer rat, all the fur is missing from his tail. Another squirrel without a tail survived winter.

Chunks of fur are missing from poor little “Gimpy’s” hip and back. His injured right hind leg hangs limp. It looks difficult and painful for him to climb trees and to pull himself up on the deck bench to drink from the birdbath. A few days later, however, he climbs the metal pole to the feeder using only three legs.

Six squirrels, all plump with furry winter coats and bushy tails, appear within seconds after I replenish the feeder following a snow storm. Playful and curious squirrels chase one another across the snow playing hide and seek and catch-me-if-you-can as they zigzag around trees bouncing from tree trunk to the ground to tree trunk again and round and round the trunk spiraling to the top of a lodgepole pine.  Another acts squirrely by chasing itself cartwheeling and somersaulting, and one claws and clatters straight up the house siding to the roof, takes a flying leap down onto the deck and scampers away.

Douglas tree squirrels, or chickarees, dart quickly with feet barely touching the ground. One smells fresh seed up in the bird feeder. He tries to climb the slippery pole but is unable to reach the platform edge to pull himself up and over. He jumps to the ground, runs about six feet away to climb the nearest lodgepole and studies the feeder from above. He flew three feet from a lower tree branch to plop himself prone across the snow-covered peaked roof then rolled over and under to reach the seed.

Douglas squirrels are not intimidated by the larger gray squirrels. If the Douglas is in the feeder first, he fights and bites, forcing the gray to retreat.

One day three gray squirrels, a flicker and three evening grosbeaks competed for seed at the feeder. Little Douglas also wanted to eat so he climbed the nearby lodgepole, ran out on the short branch, leaped, spread his feet, and sailed over to the feeder roof. He peered at one of the big grays, lashed out at him, and the big gray jumped off. The other big grays took turns trying to chase Douglas off. The little Douglas stood his ground. The grays played leapfrog over Douglas, barely touching him, but he never flinched.

Squirrel in mid air

The hyperactive squirrels are seldom quiet, constantly chattering while stomping a front foot rat-a-tat-tat. So I am concerned one warm day when I see a squirrel stretched out flat as a bearskin rug on the deck. Nothing on his little body twitched. I open the door, and away he runs. I often see squirrels stretched out draped over a tree branch and on our deck bench dangling their feet over the edge.

A squirrel wants to come to the feeder one afternoon but our daughter is relaxing nearby. He chatters and stomps his front foot but she doesn’t move. So he drops lodgepole pine cones on her until she gets the message.

Some squirrels look like they’re having a seizure. One rolls in the dirt, jumps up in the air with all four feet off the ground at the same time, chases itself as if being chased, jumps up a 3-foot survey stake and pulls and tugs the pink ribbon tied on top.

Another chews the electric cord on the birdbath heater, wraps his body around the cord and kicks it with his hind legs. A squirrel in the feeder looks over the edge as if to say, “What in the world are you doing down there?”

And a third jumps onto the deck bench, runs back and forth along its 18-foot length, leaps over to the back of a chair, then to the tabletop and up the chrome umbrella pole. He explores the spokes at the top, pauses to look around, and then begins twirling like an exotic dancer on a brass pole. Now that’s squirrely.

These squirrely distractions may be goofy but like southpaw baseball pitchers, they are always entertaining.

Squirrel eating nuts

 

 

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About Lynne Schaefer

Lynne Schaefer has written two newspaper columns ("The Schussboomer" about skiing in California, and "Notes from Lynne's Journal" about Oregon wildlife); travel and garden articles for regional magazines copy for DVD tours of the High Desert Museum and the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, both in Bend, Oregon. She has published three non-fiction books, A Traveler's Guide to Historic California, Christmas Trivia Quiz, and His Daughter's Remembrance.
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4 Responses to Tribute to National Squirrel Appreciation Day, January 21

  1. tjkesterson says:

    Hi, Lynne. We enjoyed your commentary on the habits of squirrels! I have always admired their tenacity and cleverness in achieving whatever objective they set their minds to.

    Your commentary was very timely for Joyce and I visited my brother and his wife in Denton, Texas over this past Thanksgiving. My brother has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease with Lewy Bodies. Needless to say it is devastating for all of us and especially my sister-in-law. The purpose of our visit was to see what changes there were in my brother’s condition and for Joyce to help our sister-in-law, Cheryl, and for me to do any repairs and maintenance on their house and three acres of forested property. On the day before we were to leave Texas, Cheryl asked me if I could look at her electric clothes dryer. She said that for the past several months lint was being kicked back out of the lint filter instead of staying in the filter as the hot air went out through the vent. After checking the outside vent opening and noticing no problems, I pulled the dryer out from the wall, unplugged it and took the vent tube off of the back of the dryer. I noticed immediately that the vent tube was very heavy in the area where it was attached to the wall flange. So, I disconnected the vent tube from the wall flange and it immediately fell to the floor. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. There are skunks, copper heads and all sorts of things on their property that you don’t want to run into that could be in that tube. So, I carefully picked it up, looked down in it and staring me in the face was about 8 pounds of acorns! I hadn’t thought about the hundreds of squirrels that inhabit their property but one of them had decided he or she had hit pay dirt on a nice storage unit for the coming winter. Unfortunately for them, the acorns went in the yard recycle bin and I took an old, empty rectangular suet feeder basket and screwed it over the outside opening for the clothes dryer to keep any future acorn gatherers out.

    So, in closing, I’m sorry that some poor squirrel’s work for the summer was undone by me but it was for the common good. The other thing that keeps waking me up at night is the thought of a Texas squirrel hard at work at a workbench inventing the first practical screwdriver for use by squirrels!

    Ted

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    • Lynne Schaefer says:

      Sorry to hear about your brother’s condition. I’m sure he and his wife appreciated the help and support you and Joyce offered.
      That is quite a story about the squirrel storing his nuts in the dryer vent. They are cunning.
      Thanks for following my blog.
      Lynne

      Like

  2. Heather H. says:

    What a delight it was to read this post! I loved it. You inspire me to be more patient watching my gray squirrels. We have Eastern Fox Squirrels here, too, but the gray squirrels are like the belles of the ball. Thank you for sharing this, Lynne.

    Like

  3. Lynne Schaefer says:

    Thanks, Heather, for reading it! I look forward to reading about your flying squirrels.
    Lynne

    Like

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