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A Conversation with a Squirrel

I like to fill my bird feeders before I leave for the day and refill all the bird baths. I also put out a handful of Squirrel Mix for the squirrels, jays or quail for a snack. As I finished taking care of all the feeders and started walking back towards the house I noticed a squirrel dart out from behind a large oak tree. It quickly rushed over to the little pile of Squirrel Mix and started stuffing food in its mouth.

"Whoa, slow down there little one!" I said, concerned. "I can get you more if youíre starving." "Oh, Iím not starving," it said. "Iím just trying to get it all before the jay sees it." "Well," I said. "You can leave a little for the jay." "No," it said. "Iím a squirrel. We donít leave anything for anyone. And, what we donít eat, we store." "So, you squirrel it away," I said jokingly. The squirrel gave me a quizzical look. "Iím Janice, by the way," she said, holding out her little paw. I shook it very carefully noting the razor sharp claws. "And, Iím Joanie," I said. "I know," she said. "Youíre the one that puts the food out for us all. Howíd you get started doing that anyway?"

"Well," I said. "My mother used to feed the birds and squirrels and my grandmother as well. The apple doesnít fall far from the tree, as they say," I said, smiling. The squirrel just stared. "Well," I said, breaking the awkward silence. "I noticed you came out from behind the tree. Is that where youíre storing the extra food or do you have a burrow?" "Oh, not a burrow," she said shaking her head. "Iím an Eastern Fox Squirrel. My nests are high up in the trees." "Nests?" I asked. "How many do you have?" "Quite a few," she said. "We build several nests to use in case of emergencies. You know, nests that fall in the wind, hawk attacks, tree trimmers." "Thatís good," I said. "Better to be safe than sorry!" The squirrel looked at me blankly for a moment then continued on.

"I know youíre wondering why weíre called Eastern Fox Squirrels, am I right?" I nodded. "Well," she said. "Weíre originally from the eastern part of the country and our fur does resemble the color of a fox. Technically, weíre rodents," she said with a wince. "But, I like to think of us as furry mammals with a beautiful coat and a fascination for nuts."

"We have a polygynandrous (promiscuous) mating behavior, where individuals of both sexes have multiple mates. We have two defined breeding seasons, one of which occurs in December-February, and the other from May to June. Gestation period lasts for 44 - 45 days, yielding a litter of up to 7 young with an average of 2 - 3. We can produce two litters per year, but generally only a single litter. Newborn babies are naked and cared for by their mothers for the first 7 - 8 weeks of their lives, during which period they live in the nest. When the mother leaves the nest, she covers her offspring with nesting material. Complete weaning occurs at 12 - 14 weeks old, but the young become fully independent only at 16 weeks old. "So," I said. "The young can start feeding on their own at that age?" "Yes," she continued. "I usually train mine to feed early in the morning just after you put out nuts for the jays." "Good idea," I said. "Because, as you know, the early bird gets the worm!" Janice looked at me. "Oh my God, what is it with the old sayings?" she said with a frown.

"Sorry," I said. "I guess you probably donít understand those. Theyíre just things I heard growing up and I canít help but repeat them. Sorry."

"Hey, thereís one of my old nests that fell down in the wind a while back," she said, pointing to a pile of leaves on the ground. "You can see how itís constructed," she said holding the nest up for me to examine. I took a look at the different material that was used besides the leaves and small branches. There was a variety of odd materials, surveyorís tape, a plastic bag, an old sock. Then, I saw something that looked vaguely familiar. "Hey, wait a minute," I said. "Thatís a pair of my old underwear! I threw those out. Howíd you get a hold of them?" "Oh," she chuckled. "They fell out of the garbage can. I thought I could use some natural fiber in my nest. I donít like those synthetic ones." "And," she said, leaning over, covering one side of her mouth with her paw and lowering her voice. "I gotta tell ya, you should have thrown those things out LONG ago."

"Any more questions?" she asked. "Yes," I said. "Why do you have to gnaw on everything?" I continued. "We have four front teeth that continuously grow," she said, matter of fact. "We have to gnaw or they would overgrow, for crying out loud. We gnaw on nuts and bark to keep them filed down." "Yes," I said. "And, deck railings and bird houses." She looked confused. "But, theyíre just dead wood." "Technically, they are," I said. "But, they mean something of value to us. Itís good youíre keeping your teeth in shape, though. Maybe Iíll throw out an apple for you now and then. Because you know, an apple a day keeps the doctor away!"

Janice suddenly got a horrible look on her face. "Whatís the matter?" I asked, concerned. "Well," she said. "Once I chewed on one of your bird houses and got the most vile taste in my mouth. And, it burned my mouth something fierce for a quite a while. I never chewed on that box again." I quickly looked the other way and mumbled something about how in the world could something like that have gotten on that box. "And," she went on, looking pointedly at me. "Iíve even tasted it in the bird seed!" "Oh, wow," I said. "Who would even put extra hot cayenne pepper in their bird seed to keep the squirrels away?" She stopped suddenly. "I donít remember mentioning that it was extra hot cayenne pepper." "Well," I said, stumbling over my words. "It could be, uh, bad seed, or, letís see, hmmm, maybe the jay had something to do with it. Thatís what happened!" I said, relieved I had probably fooled her.

"Yes," she said. "And, just remember, a closed mouth gathers no feet."

Bless the squirrels ~ Joanie and Annie

Another Conversation...

A few years back I had an interesting discussion with a Western Scrub-Jay. We talked about how smart and intelligent the corvid family was. Well, the jay did mostly. I just listened. The corvid family, which includes jays, both Scrub and Stellerís, crows, ravens and magpies, are known for their smarts. Too smart for their own good sometimes, but you have to admire them for their cleverness.

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East Bay Times Article

Attracting birds and bees to our yards and gardens is simple, if we provide what they like and need.

Joanie Cornell, owner of East Bay Nature in Walnut Creek and Dublin, says there are five essential elements for success ó water, food, cover, nesting and safety.

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