Volume 12, Issue 34 ~ August 19 - 25, 2004
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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

Of Squirrels, Mice and Me

A squirrel is like an ant. It works, it plans ahead and it survives.
—My grandmother, Clara Clark Burton

No way can I recall how old I was when Grandma passed those words on to my inquiring mind. I do remember it was early fall and I was a young boy fascinated by a couple of gray bushytails gathering black walnuts from a tree next to the big red barn a good distance behind the house in New England.

I asked Grandma why the squirrels were spending all their time snatching nuts from the ground beneath the tree and taking them off to some unseen place, not stopping to eat any. I was perhaps in first grade and had been around long enough to know that black walnuts were tasty. So I wondered why squirrels didn’t pause to crack open a shell or two to enjoy a treat.

To her, I was always ‘Doodle,’ after a comic strip character at the time, and she likened the squirrel to the ants I knew much about because I was fascinated with watching them parade out of ant hills to carry back to their lairs crumbs I would drop for them.

“Doodle,” she added, “squirrels and ants are like us; they store their food for winter. That’s why they will always be around.” She then suggested that all the activity I had noted that early fall, as the leaves of the maples were beginning to change, could well mean a severe winter was coming.

Weather Forecasters?
I pondered that latter observation the other day for two reasons. One, I watched a squirrel add to its nest of leaves and twigs so early. Two, daughter Heather Boughey called from her home to report that she, too, was watching a squirrel do likewise on the shores of a branch of Stoney Creek a few miles north of my home near the mouth of the creek.

Does this mean we’re in for a severe winter? The last time I saw a squirrel working on a nest in midsummer was back in the 1970s, when winter was severe enough that big portions of the Bay were frozen over solid. Even ships found navigation difficult, and ice breakers worked overtime.

Few casual nature watchers realize it, but most of the oversized globs of leaves and twigs hanging from branches are not the doings of birds but squirrels planning on refuge from severe weather. Nests is the right word: That’s where mama squirrel delivers her young, and they need warm accommodations, seeing that the first of a usual two litters comes in February or March.

Also, seeing that natural dens in the hollows of trees aren’t as available as they once were, bushytails of all ages welcome a cozy nook when winds and temperatures turn Arctic-like. That’s why we’re seeing more and more of the external nests of twigs, leaves and bark. The leaves cushion the interiors for comfort, and when worked into the exterior they presumably keep the nest more weatherproof.

But it seems unusual indeed to see squirrels romping up trees with fresh green leaves in their mouths. Most nest building or renovations I’ve seen come in late fall and early winter when the leaves are dead and dried. The nuts in the two big walnut trees in the lawn up here on the shores of Stoney Creek in North County aren’t even shaping up yet, though the other day I noted one big, mature, bright green nut fallen on the driveway. A rogue nut, I’d call it.

Otherwise, the resident squirrels are busy stashing away the sunflower seeds, corn and other grains and seed swiped from bird feeders. With the peanuts I toss to them, they eat one or two first before carrying the rest off to hidden caches for winter.

Two of the many bushytails have developed a taste for the grape jelly I put out for the several catbirds in residence. But not infrequently, the aggressive antics of the birds drive bushytails off. Catbirds don’t like to share.

While watching the squirrels nest-building, I became curious how they got such an unusual name. We’ve heard the term squirrelling something away, but that is derived from the antics of squirrels, not vice versa. Via the Audubon Natural Encyclopedia, I learned that naturalists of the pre-Christian era were fascinated by the little rodents that carried their own parasol, their bushy tails curled above their heads. In Greek, skia meant shade, so they were skiuros. As time went by, there came different spellings, and in English, it eventually became squirrel.

Me as Surrogate Mom
Up here at Stoney Creek, we’ve had a distressing incident involving a different brand of rodent, and it’s a sad tale indeed.

I had a big dead silver maple cut several years ago, and I set the biggest chunks aside for later splitting for the fireplace. But age (mine) prompted procrastination. Not long ago, I noted the wood was deteriorating, so I took an axe, determined to save what was possible, and cracked one open. A mother field mouse fled, leaving behind two offspring not an inch long.

I left them in hopes the mother would return. She didn’t, and on my hands I had two baby mice. One granddaughter Grumpy, going on 3, quickly named one Mickey, the other Maisy. What to do?

A standard eye dropper was too big, so to feed them I found a smaller one at CVS, warmed some of my skimmed milk, felt their heartbeats as I mothered them. I almost had to force the milk into their mouths, prompting me to think they wanted the better taste (and nourishment) of whole milk.

So there I was trying to keep alive a pair of fledglings that ordinarily later in life — theirs — in early fall, I’d be setting traps for in the kitchen and basement. Maybe, I thought, I could keep them in a cage and pursue a new twist on nature study. And enjoyment. I had read some time back, in Reader’s Digest, of someone doing just that.

For several days, things seemed to be on track; their eyes had opened, they began moving about, one (only Grumpy could tell one from the other) began trying to climb out of their big glass container. But feeding them remained a problem; more was spilled than consumed, though I’m sure enough milk went where intended. Yet from where does one learn of the nutritional needs of baby field mice?

I was becoming more than a little fond of the pair as they progressed from sedentary balls of gray fur curled together to creatures more inclined to look life over from the nest of hairs and feathers created by their departed mom. They seemed plump enough and lively enough. But one evening one died shortly after feeding.

The survivor still seemed healthy enough and climbed about my fingers as I tried to feed it — I still didn’t know which was Mickey and which was Maisy. But the next morning, it had also passed away.

Thus ended my efforts at mouse husbandry, the Burton version of Of Mice and Men. If only I hadn’t gotten so involved. But it was worth a shot. Enough said …

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.