In April, three weeks after we moved into our Connecticut house, gray squirrels appeared, boldly crossing the lawn and playing pickup games on the basketball court. Outraged by the invasion, the female pointer would race from window to window, woofing at the intruders. At the same time, tunnels appeared on the lawn and the beagle began to patrol under the deck. When Alvin, or one of his brothers, scampered over my lawn the first time, I was excited; the dogs were outraged. For a month, the raids continued. The other side suffered some casualties—a shrew, a chipmunk. My stone wall was damaged by the continued infiltrations. I almost lost a bed of daylilies. Then suddenly, the aggression stopped. An occasional squirrel meandered through the yard. Chattering was heard in the trees. But the dogs worried about the toads. The toads are gone. The squirrels are back.
The squirrels and chipmunks have never really been gone. The Eastern Gray squirrels live in the hollows of trees or in nests built high among the branches. They can live in close proximity to one another. During the summer, they must have foraged among the leaves in the woods but now in the fall, they hunt for acorns on the lawn. For Eastern Gray squirrels, this time of year, according to the Smithsonian website, is the “fall reshuffle” (www.mnh.si.edu/mna/image_info.cfm?species_id=298 ) where young squirrels search for a new home range. Naïve young squirrels taunt my dogs as they scurry with mouths full of acorns. They are focused: bury and hunt, hunt and bury. Even as they are stashing their winter stores, they are looking for a place of their own.
Like college bound humans, the young squirrels are leaving the nests. I notice more road kill—young squirrels intent on their quest for territory, mangled by the wheels of automobiles. While riding on the Greenways trail last week, a young squirrel ran directly toward my front wheel; I slowed; he slowed. I had visions of a little rabid squirrel jumping on my leg. I braked even more. At the last minute, he pivoted, his tail brushing my ankle. But the trail is fraught with bold chipmunks and squirrels, crossing into new territories.
In Maine I was amazed by the boldness of the red squirrels (which can be found in Connecticut but not in my yard). Along the trail to the Bass Harbor Lighthouse, one barked a warning at the strolling humans. On another trail, one ignored us as he snacks on a mushroom. The squirrels are engrossed in meeting their own needs. We do not interest them much.
Like the Starks in The Game of Thrones, the squirrels and chipmunks live by the motto: “Winter is coming.” Now is the time to forage and prepare. Young squirrels look for a place to nest during the winter. They do not hibernate but instead curl up in treetop nests, venturing out to unearth nuts and seeds buried in the fall. The chipmunks, far more territorial, build elaborate burrows with kitchens (storage) and bedrooms three feet underground where they will be in a torpor, occasionally waking to eat, occasionally venturing out. The front lawn is riddled with mounds. One young chipmunk tried to assume the territory under my deck that was once occupied by another, now deceased. The beagle and Peanut, both of whom can go under the deck without crawling, teamed up and brought me his carcass. A fierce winter may be coming yet Nature herself is brutal.
These relentless preparations for the future make me nervous. The Eastern Fox squirrels that pranced along the fence in my SoCal backyard played in the fall like they did in the summer. Like so many in Southern California, these squirrels were not native but transplants. Purportedly brought to California by Civil War veterans who kept them as pets (or set them loose in order to hunt), these squirrels have adapted to a life with no seasons. Living on eucalyptus seeds and pine cones, raiding bird seed feeders, hopping over fences, they have migrated from the LA basin through the San Fernando Valley to the Simi and Santa Clarita Valleys. These squirrels should be in the same habitat as the Eastern Grey squirrel but instead they dance in LA. They should be planning for winter instead of nesting in palm trees. Those in my old backyard shared the palm tree with a barn owl—whose pellets indicated he knew they were there. (check this out: http://www.mnh.si.edu/mna/image_info.cfm?species_id=299. I should have put some of those infant skulls under a black light.) Evidently my squirrels were too busy living La Vida Loca to find a more secure nesting spot. I am used to squirrels living in the moment. These squirrels plan for the future.
I watch the squirrels from the windows. Do I need to be doing something too? I call the heating company and ask. The furnace needs a tune-up. Should I buy wood now for the fireplace? Should I be stocking up on canned goods? Propane? I price snow blowers and wonder: how bad could the winter be? I wish the squirrels could tell me.