Living With Squirrels

“Runt” about 12-weeks old

The wilderness of squirrels is an awesome wilderness.

—American Author, Douglas Fairbairn (1926-1977)

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The Douglas’ squirrels we live with are wild.  They are not confined to cages, they are not pets, but friends, and we share their woods.

 —Journal entry, Wildwood, Oregon 2011

🌿  🌿  🌿  🌿

When it comes to making first impressions, the Douglas’ squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii) will surely make one smile.  When people meet this noisy little tree squirrel for the first time, they can’t help but say, “Oh, how cute,” followed by, “Look how small they are.” 

The Douglas’ squirrel, often called “pine squirrel” or “chickaree”—names commonly used to identify the red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) that occurs east of the Cascade Mountains, makes its home in deciduous-conifer forests from southwest British Columbia to northwest California, and the central Sierra Nevada Mountains.  In addition to its constant need for chatter, the Douglas’ squirrel is easily recognized by its grayish-brown back, and dark stripe (absent in winter) along each side of it body that offsets its pumpkin-orange belly that fades to sweet potato-yellow in winter.  (The red squirrel (though similar) has a reddish-brown back, a white belly, and dark stripes along its sides in summer.)  Adults, sometimes mistaken for baby squirrels, have a body of 6 to 7 inches long, while the tail is 4 to 5 inches long.  Despite its size, this is one tough little squirrel with an attitude.  Like the Chihuahua who thinks he’s a pit bull, the Douglas’ squirrel thinks he’s a bobcat!

My interactions with the Douglas’ squirrel began fourteen years ago at the bird feeders.  It wasn’t long before they began to associate my presence with food that began a long and trusting friendship.  Heaven forbid should a feeder go empty, they are sure to let me by jumping from tree to feeder and back again.  If this doesn’t get my attention, they tell me so with incessant chatter:  a rapid “cheer-cheer-cheer-chick-r-r-r-r,” often holding the last note a full minute before taking a breath!  Even in the middle of the night, they will chatter if disturbed.

Our first spring in the mountains mama squirrels introduced us to their little ones.  It was also the first time that we’d ever seen baby Douglas’ squirrels, and we immediately fell in love with them.  If I sat on the ground, one-by-one they would come to investigate, climbing over my legs as if they were logs in the forest.  It was a happy time that was sadly about to end.  It would be almost a decade before we saw baby squirrels in the woods again.  While a number of things could have attributed to their disappearance, the odds were in favor of the hoard of feral cats our neighbor kept.  It was a sad time for the squirrels, but even worse for the feral cats that eventually succumbed to disease and/or starvation. 

The squirrel population slowly recovered, and after seven long years, we began to see little ones again.  That’s when we met “Skittles”—a one-year-old female.  Different from the other squirrels, she was extremely friendly, and had a gentle personality.  She proved brainier than the rest, and was quick to learn her name; when called, she came running.  Sometimes, she strayed a considerable distance from her tree—a western redcedar (Thuja plicata) that stands twelve feet from the back porch.  Her going astray worried me, as it made her more vulnerable to predators.  During her second winter, Skittles met danger for the first time when a barred owl (Strix varia) claimed her tree for its evening roost.  Although we delighted in seeing a barred owl for the first time, it meant serious business for Skittles, and was a constant worry.  That winter, several feet of snow had fallen, and Skittles (smart girl) dug snow routes—a network of tunnels underneath the snow that allowed her to travel safely from one place to another.

One day, the owl vanished, but so did Skittles.  For several days, and despite my calling her, there was no response.  I felt like an expectant parent waiting for their teenager to come home after a first date.  I couldn’t stand it any longer.  I bundled up and went to the woods in search of clues—droplets of blood, wing patterns, something in the snow that might indicate what happened.  To my relief, I found nothing.  On the afternoon of the third day, lo and behold, there was Skittles begging for a peanut at the back door.  A welcomed sight, I wanted to take her into my hands and bring her in the house where she would be safe, but of course, I couldn’t.  I also had a mind to giver her a good scolding for worrying us the way she did, but instead I melted, and gave her a handful of peanuts.  Skittles remained with us for three more years, and produced two litters.

Skittles had laid the groundwork for new friendships.  There was “Vinnie”—the squirrel bully with the V-shaped tail that would fight any squirrel that came within ten feet of the feeder.  Males that entered his territory he fought or chased away.  One afternoon, he got into a serious scrap, and his rival bit off three inches of his tail!  With only two inches remaining, his tail now parted and fanned in the shape of a V.  (To my surprise, I found Vinnie’s tailpiece, which is now in my treasure box.)  We never saw Vinnie after that summer.  With his pride undoubtedly hurt, he likely went elsewhere where the other squirrels didn’t know him.

Another squirrel soon touched our hearts.  We call her “Salali”—an Indian word that means “squirrel.”  She’s been with us for three years now, and is a friendly, gentle squirrel with a robust figure that comes to her name when called.  When she wants a peanut, to get my attention, she sits on the back of the porch chair and looks through the glass door.  If that doesn’t work, she’ll knock over the porch broom so the sound alerts me of her presence—clever girl.  Other times, she sits on the roof of the chickadee house nailed to the cedar tree, and watches me through the kitchen window.  If I acknowledge her, she runs down the tree as fast as her legs will carry her.  That’s my cue to hurry to the door with a peanut (she has me trained well), and that she takes gently from my hand.  If she is in a squirrelly mood, she’ll carry the peanut in to the woods and bury it in a clump of moss in the tree branches (a dangerous maneuver), or will dig a small hole in the ground where she’ll stuff the peanut inside.  With her front feet, she then pulls the loose soil over the opening, tamps it down, and disguises it with moss and leaves.  This of course, does not fool the resident Steller’s jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) that swoops down and steals the treasure.

Salali in summer dress
Salali in winter dress

It wasn’t long before a second squirrel honed in on Salali’s territory–a six-month old female we call “Neche”—an Indian word that means “friend.”  Despite an occasional quarrel, Salali and Neche get along reasonably well.  Smaller than Salali, Neche is a bold, persistent little squirrel.  Unlike Salali who has a gentle touch, Neche grabs the peanut from my hand.  Sometimes, she’s grabs a finger!  Not viciously, and never hard enough to draw blood, but it’s startling just the same, and I pull my hand back in reflex that sends her flying!

While Salali typically keeps to her territory at the back of the house, Neche knows no bounds.  Sometimes, her want of peanuts is endless, so I escape to the front porch hoping she won’t find me, but she always does.  Regardless whether I’m sitting or standing, she runs around at my feet, or climbs onto my lap until she gets what she wants.  If I ignore her, she takes her revenge on the screen door, which I’ve had to replace three times.

Although Neche has had a number of suitors, she has never given birth.  Salali, however, has bore two litters.  Last autumn, she bore three pups.  Mating rituals begin in spring and/or fall.  Suitors are persistent trying to win the hearts of females, and their want of peanuts subsides.  The female decides when she will mate.  Her suitor follows her every move, and will chase her ’round and ’round the trees and stumps.  All day long, there is a good deal of chatter, and the sound of claws scratching against tree bark.  Sometimes, the female turns the tables on her suitor, and he is the one being chased.  To win her affection, he wags his tail like a signal flag at the drag races until she accepts or declines his advances.  In all my years of squirrel observation, I’ve observed only one mating; a brief encounter that took place on a hemlock stump. 

When the mating rituals ended, Salali disappeared.  While I hoped she was tending a litter of pups, with so many predators with a taste for squirrel meat, I couldn’t help but worry, and with good reason.  A few days earlier, I saw an extraordinary sight.  A red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)—less common in forests than the sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus), Cooper’s hawk (A. cooperii), and Northern goshawk (A. gentilis), knocked a Douglas’ squirrel from its branch.  The hard impact knocked the squirrel senseless, and sent it plummeting 30 feet to the ground!  Wasting no time, the hawk landed, clutched the unconscious squirrel in its talons, and flew away.  It happened so quickly, and without a sound, that other squirrels in the area didn’t even realize what had happened.  While I felt sad for the loss of the little squirrel, I hoped it wasn’t Salali.

A little more than a month had passed, and I’d given up hope of ever seeing Salali again.  Then, one afternoon, there she was, climbing down her tree carrying what looked like a mouthful of dried moss.  A closer look revealed that it wasn’t moss, but a squirrel pup!  Squirrels often move their pups to new sites—a practice often repeated multiple times.  Not only was I delighted to see Salali alive and well, but was thrilled to see this behavior for the first time.  She transferred not one, not two, but three pups.  As she moved the third pup, imagine my surprise when she brought it to my feet!  There she stood looking up at me as if wanting to ask, “What do you think of my little one?”  She held the pup at a slight angle by its belly fur.  The pup, curled into a ball, held its tail snug against its body.  With eyes barely open, it tucked its head underneath its mother’s chin, and wrapped its tiny arms around her neck.  After a few more seconds, Salali decided it was time to go.  She crossed the yard, and as she went to pass through the cyclone fencing, she misjudged the opening, and dropped the little one.  There lay the poor pup on its back like a turtle, legs flailing.  Wasting no time, Salali poked, prodded, and rolled the pup on the ground like a meatball.  Without complaint, and with the pup on its side curled in a ball, Salali grabbed hold of its belly fur, and off they went.

The owl and the squirrel

Salali moved her pups several more times before settling for a ground nest among the fern glade along South Bank (an embankment that runs the length of our property).  As the pups grew, she moved them to a tree nest, which served as a secondary nest.  A week later, the baby squirrels came out to explore the world for the first time.  They looked too small in the big forest, and knew nothing about danger.  Salali did her best to keep them together, and would carry them one by one to the tree nest; but the pups wouldn’t stand for it, and moments later, they were in the yard again.  The pups kept close to one another.  In the process of being weaned, they nibbled on wild greens and sunflower seeds.  They took peanuts from my hand, and although they found them awkward at first, they quickly learned how to crack them or carry them away with ease.  The pups allowed me to touch them.  Their fur felt as soft as silk.  We decided to give them names, calling the largest pup “Chewy”—the middle pup “Pippin,” and the smallest adopted the name “Runt” (a.k.a. “Little One”).  

With each passing day, the pups strayed farther from the nest.  This was a growing concern, as they were still very small.  One evening, just before sunset, Pippin was sitting on a tree stump when suddenly a barred owl dropped from above, wings spread.  The tree stump disappeared underneath the owl, and I thought that was the end of Pippin.  But when the owl folded his wings, he seemed as surprised as I was that his talons were empty.  It was a narrow escape for Pippin, but the danger wasn’t over.  With so much food running about, the owl decided to perch on a stub in the squirrel tree where it watched the baby squirrels every move.  Unmindful of the danger that loomed, one of the baby squirrels came within a few feet of the owl.  For a moment, I thought the youngster might walk right into its talons; I think the owl thought so too!  As if that wasn’t harrowing enough, Salali sat eating a peanut opposite the owl.  I hoped my presence would frighten the owl; I even clapped my hands, but the owl was fearless, and wouldn’t budge.  I was beside myself with worry, and couldn’t bring myself to walk away.  Instead, and despite the 33-degree air, I watched over the baby squirrels until it grew dark, and they were safe in their nest. 

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Copyright 2011.  All rights reserved


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