Saturday, February 11, 2012

Are Squirrels People Too?

I admit that, in the 29 years we have lived in our Albany home, I have often been unhappy sharing my yard with gray squirrels.  The fact that, at any one time, we might have eight in the yard at once has definitely influenced my feelings about them.  Despite their fluffy tails and sometimes cute antics, I have found them to be annoying and pesky.

For one, I learned early on not to plant tulips.  In Albany, tulips are a staple of our city's Dutch heritage, but not in my yard.  When we first moved here, I planted tulip bulbs. Just as those red and yellow buds got fat and ready to open, squirrels nipped them off.  If the squirrels had been hungry and wanted them for a feast, I would have had some sympathy, but no, they dropped the buds and left. From then on, I planted daffodils instead.

I don't even attempt traditional tomatoes.  My neighbors often had large almost-ripe tomatoes hanging from the vine, but who would come along and take the first bite?  Squirrels.  Those nice juicy fruits had teeth marks all over them.  I do grow grape tomatoes.  I lose some but can still retrieve a few pints in the course of a summer.

We managed to "out-fox" the squirrels at the bird feeder.  They used to swing from maple branches and land on the roof of the feeder, then hang by their back toes, ready for a feast.  Although amazed at the squirrels' gymnastics, we cut the tree branch and got a feeder that closes when too much weight is on the rim.  A baffle on the pole helps too.

The most expensive damage came when a squirrel fell down the chimney and chewed the firebox inside our oil burner.  We had to pay for a few hefty repairs after that escapade; we also put a screen over the top of the chimney.  "Rats with fluffy tails," one neighbor used to say.

Okay, sometimes they can be cute.  After the holidays we put the Christmas tree out in the yard, still covered with the popcorn and cranberry chain I string each year.  I like watching the squirrels clamber over the tree carrying off lengths of the chain across the yard and up our Norway maple tree.  Against the snow on cold days, they can look soft and picturesque with their fur puffed out for warmth, as they try to keep a grip on the popcorn string.

In the yard behind us, a huge silver maple houses a squirrel apartment complex.  Two large holes provide entrances.  Who knows how many squirrels live in the trunk and in the largest branch.  From our porch, we have been entertained watching them go in and out.  Our cat keeps track of the squirrels too.  She chatters and her tail flips hard even though she can only be a spectator from the window.

And in the fall, they run from the oak tree across the street laden with acorns heading for the silver maple condo complex.  We wake up to the sound of acorns pinging the roofs of cars while the squirrels tackle the branches and load up for winter.

Still, I have never considered these gray rodents more than occasionally cute nuisances, until last week.  I was cruising down our street on my bike when I saw a freshly hit squirrel in the road.  It lay on its side, obviously dead, but appeared almost unharmed, as if it has just been given a stunning blow.  Next to it, a puffed up gray squirrel stood guard.  On the grass, two other squirrels appeared, watching.

For a while after I got home, I took an occasional glance out the window.  Each time a car went by, the squirrels scattered, then returned, the one taking particular care to stay nearby.  Could they be grieving?  What was the relationship of the guard to the deceased?  Were the two others family members?  We know that cats and dogs are capable of feeling loss, but squirrels? When three crows came, thinking a fresh meal might be available, the guard squirrel kept his position and the crows remained at bay. 

By the time Bill came home, the dead squirrel was beginning to look like road kill, the guard squirrel had moved farther away, and crows were showing greater interest.  Bill carried the carcass on a shovel to the field at the end of the street where it would decompose as nature saw fit.

We were both amazed that we had never seen this kind of behavior in all the years we have lived here. Had I underestimated the squirrels? Was there sadness in the silver maple condo? I may need to give these gray neighbors more credit.