Friday, May 1, 2009

A lot of litter © by adrian

The squirrel whisperer Episode #3

I've never heard the Mermaids sing, but I have talked to the baby squirrels.

Rusty has finally begun to display her litter to us. She is now allowing her infants out of the drey (a squirrel house) so they can start hesitantly exploring life on their own.

Rusty, you should understand, comes from the finest rodent stock in our valley, so we are very excited to see her reproduce. She is the progeny of Lurch
(see my story; The squirrel whisperer © by adrian Episode one: Lurch) and Missy who was the squirrel that lived with Lurch and helped care for him after his accident with the big wheels.

Squirrels have very pragmatic names in general and because of her colour, she insisted on being called "Rusty". I remember one of our visiting squirrels who was the most adorable rodent we had ever seen. His name was "Tiny Perfect", but after he had an accident and most of his tail was ripped off he quickly explained to us that he had decided to change his name to "Almost Perfect".

Most two legs don't realize that squirrels lead very tragic lives. Not only must they remember not to play in the street with the big wheels, but they are constantly pursued by a myriad of predators. As well as dealing with the children who love to chase them, they need to stay alert for dogs, cats, raccoons and large birds that all seem to be constantly on the lookout for inattentive squirrels. They are also not averse to having some fairly serious squabbles among themselves.

We knew she was pregnant at the beginning of the year when she started hanging out for hours on her porch. At the time she seemed very reflective and rarely left the drey. She always had a look that seemed to suggest she didn't quite understand how this had happened to her. A sure sign to a squirrel whisperer that there is definitely something in the wind.

She is living in our backyard in the same house she grew up in a few short years ago. She was just an infant and now she has become the grande dame of the valley.

During the past few months we would occasionally see her stagger out the door onto her porch where she would then spend the next twenty minutes trying to clean the spittle from her belly and now huge teats. As soon as she was finished, she would lie down exhausted and doze off to sleep.

Until just the other day we had seen no other signs of life. And now the infants are everywhere.

A tiny face and then a small body emerged hesitantly from the opening one day. A bird chirped and the tiny ball of fur threw itself back inside immediately. A few minutes later the face slowly started to push out onto the porch again but a gust of wind startled her and she was back inside in a flash. This was repeated over and over... slowly emerging and then running back inside in an instant. She was determined to get out and look around and apparently filled with wonder, but at the same time everything she saw or heard terrified her. Every time she emerged a bird would fly overhead or a car could be heard on the street below and she would scramble back inside. Now of course, she would be armed with scary stories about the outside world she could share with the others in the house.

Soon another face and tiny body joined the first on the porch. Immediately a third stepped forth and they began to frolic with each other, then a gust of wind resulted in a flurry of tails disappearing into the house. Hours later we looked up and saw another we had not known was there. Rusty had been hiding four babies from us, and today was the day for them to start their squirrel journey.

The tree house I built many years ago is wide, deep and very long, so we knew it could easily accommodate such a crowd, but it still amazed us that Rusty had been inside nursing four babies for almost ten weeks before we knew positively how many were in there. During that first day they would venture as far as the porch and only for the briefest bit of time. Anytime there were more than two on the porch, they would play wrestle with each other, but mostly the top order of the day was to pull and play with the others tails. If mom showed up she was groomed constantly by the infants. She would lie down on the porch and one would lick her ears as another sat on her back and a third would pull at her foot.

Suddenly Linda and I realized we were now watching the antics of five babies, another had added himself to the pack without us noticing.

It wasn't too long before we realized that the five had become six and it was now impossible to keep track of them or the constant flurry of motion... At times the tree was a beehive of activity with baby rodents constantly running everywhere in different directions. Rusty had been nursing a total of six babies during the past ten weeks! She produced one grey, three golden greys, and two black. Surprisingly, it's not unusual for black or grey squirrels to have black and grey in the same litter.

I've grown into the role of Jimmy Stewart in the movie Rear Window. I sit at our bedroom window with my camera and binoculars at the ready, minutely examining every move the infant rodents make, squealing to Linda to come quick and look at the cute things they are doing. This is how I spend my dotage now. Linda spends her time down the hall in her office on the internet. I hope she's looking for some place where we can rent an intravenous feeding setup for me so I won't need to leave the window area to eat.

There are long periods with no activity at all, and then all of a sudden they come out of the house and start running everywhere on the tree again. There is almost non stop activity for about a half hour or so and then they pile back inside for nap time. All of this is mixed with periodic bottlenecks at the door as they flee to safety if anything startles them. On a rainy day like today Rusty comes down for her handout but we don't see the babies at all. We assume mom keeps them inside and explains to them that days like these are craft days.

As far as predators go, raccoons are the worst. Since building the house it has been a constant struggle to outsmart them and at the same time let the squirrels have easy access to the tree. If a raccoon can get up the tree it will pull out all the stuffing (think pillows) that is in the house and kill the babies if it can get to them. Adult squirrels can easily get away, but of course the babies can't.

The latest invention that has successfully deterred the raccoons has been surrounding the tree trunk in those slippery flat plastic sheets that kids use for sleighs. The raccoons haven't been able to get past the plastic apron yet, but sooner or later they may, so our only hope is that we can hold them off until the babies can fend for themselves.

Grown squirrels and even the juveniles can easily leap to the hedge or back to the tree, but the infants have to be taught to do that. They haven't gotten to the ground yet, but they are practicing their leaping, something they will need to master before they can get off or back onto the tree. You have no idea how the neighbours carry on when they see me throwing myself off the tree to the bushes below yelling all the while, "follow me, follow me!"

Squirrels are just a nuisance to many people, but I find them full of excitement and curiosity. If you get to know a bit about them you can easily see they also often display a great deal of empathy to each other, (as long as it isn't feeding time). I've certainly had a lot to do with squirrels in my day, but I've rarely seen anything as fascinating as watching this litter develop in such an accelerated time frame. Over the years we've had other juveniles grow up in the house. Rusty, as mentioned, grew up there, but this is the first litter that was actually born there. All the others were brought from some secret place and moved in once they were large enough to travel on their own.

In another week or two they will start to go their separate ways and set up their own living quarters somewhere else. Some will make our back yard a stop along the way in their daily travels and we will see them every now and then. Sadly a few may not even make it past the juvenile stage, but they are here now and will be in this story forever. Rusty will probably move on soon too and maybe she will come back to live here next winter. Inevitably one of the litter will stay on to live in the house, usually the philosopher of the bunch chooses to stay. The porch lends itself to lying out and contemplating the world and being able to watch it go by from a safe distance.

After Rusty and her siblings grew up and went their separate ways, Rusty's brother Smudge decided to stay on and he lived in the house for about six months after the others left. We see him every once in awhile now, but don't know where he lives anymore. Occasionally we see him coming across the wires from the big Condo in the trees further down the valley, but we're not sure if he has an apartment there or not. Generally squirrels live communal lives in the winter; there is something fundamentally practical about a lot of warm bodies snuggled on top of each other in the cold. We did see Smudge up in Rusty's house about the same time we realized Rusty was pregnant, and we assumed he had just dropped by to pay his respects to his sister.

Anyway, I have my money on the greyest one of the group staying on, so far he seems to be the most reflective of the bunch. We often notice him just sitting there away from the others, daydreaming. It's still a bit early to tell yet, we don't know their names, but I suppose when they come down to formally introduce themselves the one who might be named Socrates will tell us he's decided to stay on for awhile.