Animals are sentient, intelligent, perceptive, funny and entertaining. We owe them a duty of care as we do to children. —Michael Morpurgo
It was late in the afternoon when I’d finished thinning the candy flower, Claytonia sibirica, a native species that will take over if let go. It had been a lovely weather day, clear and bright, but by early evening the blue sky turned overcast, and the air humid; a sign of hot weather to come. My work in the woods was done for the day, and I needed a cold one. Wiping the sweat from my forehead, I poured a tall glass of iced tea. Perfectly chilled, it was heaven. I sat down; it felt good to relax. But, my time for relaxing was brief. One of our Douglas squirrels, the one we call Neche (a Ojibwa word that means “Friend”) came running at me. I had peanuts waiting, but she wasn’t interested . . . hmm. As she got closer, I saw she had a mouthful of cedar strips that she’d peeled from a nearby tree.
Ah, ha! Nesting material, and I had a good hunch where she was taking it. I’ve heard the stories of squirrels making their nests under the hoods of cars. In eighteen years of living here it’s never been an issue, ’till now.
Neche paused in front of my Jeep. I watched her close, careful not to lose sight of her. I acted nonchalant. I didn’t want her to know I was watching, or she might retreat. Thinking the coast was clear, Neche hopped onto my Jeeps tire, and disappeared in the engine. I knew it! I hurried in the house for my iPhone, and told Chris I needed his help. “What for?” He asked. I think there are squirrelly stowaways in my Jeep!
After a brief explanation, we hurried outside and lifted the engine hood. Neche made her getaway from the opening in air filter box. She was understandably nervous as any good mother would be. She danced around a bit, and then abruptly left. (She left to find a new nest site for her precious cargo. I wasn’t worried. Douglas squirrels often move their young to new nests.) Gently, we unlatched the top of the box that held the hose and air filter. Chris held it out-of-the-way while I carefully peeled back the air filter; and voilà! Inside, two perfect little squirrel babies. Fully furred, and eyes not yet open, they slept peacefully on a cushy mattress made of moss and cedar four inches thick.
I wanted to hold the little darlings, and protect them, but it was in their best interest that I didn’t. After all, they are wild, wonderful creatures, and wild they must remain. Judging from their size, I figured them to be about five weeks old. By eight weeks, their eyes will be wide open, and they’ll be fully weaned, and on their own. It was hard to tell how long they’d been inside my Jeep, but I’m guessing at least a week. This meant that they had traveled to the post office, the hardware store, the market, and coffeehouse. I don’t even want to think of what could have happened if mama and babies had been separated.
We waited, keeping the nest exposed so Neche would return for them. Just as I knew she would, Neche had found a new nest site, and returned for her little ones. She patted and rolled baby number one (the largest of the two) into a ball; the little guy let out a squeak! (So cute!) Grabbing the youngster by the nape of his neck, she carried him across the yard to the salmonberry thicket. She did the same with the second baby. When both babies were safely hidden, Neche returned to the old next. She must have spent five minutes sifting through every inch of moss. She was quite thorough. Convinced the nest was empty, Neche climbed Chris’ arm and sat on his shoulder. Maybe it was her way of saying thank you for saving her little ones.
Squirrelly update: I’m happy to report that several weeks after finding our squirrelly stowaways, two baby squirrels appeared in the yard. I can’t help think they are the two we helped save. (It’s just a feeling I have.) Both looked happy and healthy, playing, foraging, and exploring their forest world for the very first time. I would also like to note that we replaced the old air filter box that had an opening, to a cold air intake that does not.
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