SCORES & OUTDOORS: Requiem for a squirrel: the decision that determined his fate

Squirrels often have to make snap decisions.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

There I was last Thursday, driving down the Cross Hill Road, in Vassalboro, minding my own business, listening to my Johnny Cash CD; just cruising on a beautiful, pleasant late spring afternoon, heading for camp.

That’s when it happened. A gray squirrel came darting out from the side of the road. He made a mad dash for the center line, stopping just short, undecided on what he wanted to do. He turned, looked my way. We made momentary eye contact.

Gray squirrels are a treat to watch. During their activities, they can be quite comical. They are acrobatic, agile, and extremely clever. Have you ever seen one stretching from a tree to a bird feeder? It almost defies the laws of gravity.

But they are actually scatter hoarders. It accumulates food in numerous small caches for later recovery. Some caches are temporary, especially those made near the site of a sudden abundance of food which can be retrieved within hours or days for re-burial in a more secure site. Others are more permanent and are not retrieved until months later. It has been estimated that each squirrel makes several thousand caches each season. The squirrels have very accurate memory for the locations of these caches, and use distant and nearby landmarks to retrieve them. Smell is used once the squirrel is within a few feet of the cache.

Squirrels are relentless workers, constantly getting their winter food supply in storage.

I have seen squirrels assume some strange postures in attempts to get into bird feeders, but my favorite one happened several years ago while my wife and I were visiting relatives in South Harpswell. They had a basketball-shape and size bird feeder hanging from an old oak tree. The ball had small feeding stations inserted from the outside, which would make it very difficult for squirrels to get into. I was sitting at the breakfast table watching as the squirrel climbed up the tree, went out on the limb, and jumped on the ball. Well, the ball being made of clear plastic was quite slippery, and the squirrel fell off. Undeterred, he went back up the tree, and proceeded out on the limb once more, jumped on the ball and immediately fell to the ground.

He would do this about three more times. It was at that point, even while I was wondering what his next approach might be, that I saw what you could describe as unimagineable, even unbelievable. He went back up the tree, ran out on the branch, and began to fool with the knot that hung the feeder. Now, from my vantage point, I couldn’t tell whether he was chewing at the rope, or attempting to untie it. Whatever he did worked, because in a matter of a minute or two, the ball came crashing to the ground, splitting wide open. The squirrel then went down the trunk, casually hopped over to the feeder, and commenced to helping himself to the seed that had spilled out onto the ground.

Did you know squirrels are one of very few mammals that can descend a tree head first? Although squirrels will fight among themselves for food, they also have been known to mob attack potential predators such as domestic cats.

They are also great communicators. In more noisy sites such as urban areas, they communicate with their tails and body movements. In the woods and more quiet environs, they will communicate by vocalizing. They can make a sound similar to the squeak of a mouse, a low pitched noise, a chatter and a raspy call.

Many times squirrels will “scold” me after I chase them from our feeders. They make it perfectly clear they are not happy.

They are kind of cute to watch, and pretty much mind their own business, unlike the more destructive red squirrel. So we live in some type of harmony. I respect their space if they respect mine.

Well, unfortunately for that squirrel last Thursday, once he turned and looked in my direction, he made a fatal mistake. He tried to return to the shoulder of the road. Had he elected to continue to the other side, he would have been fine. I felt badly, especially since I was listening to “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Which MLB pitcher originally drafted by the Red Sox and traded to Baltimore before ever playing a game with Boston, returned for both the Red Sox titles in 2004 & 2007?

Answer can be found here.


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