Volume 14, Issue 7 ~ February 16 - February 22, 2006

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

The Benefaction of Snow

Like a small gray

coffee pot

sits the squirrel.

—Humbert Wolfe: “The Gray Squirrel,” 1924

Some things take years to connect. The above verse was written two years before I was born. My mother read those lines to me along with all the usual nursery rhymes.

I never got the connection; how could a squirrel look like a coffee pot? Ridiculous, like a spider coming along to sit beside Miss Muffett, or Jack of Jack and Jill getting his crown remedied with vinegar and brown paper after tumbling down the hill they climbed to fetch a pail of water.

The Gray Squirrel wasn’t among the popular nursery rhymes of my early years, so while Simple Simon, Hickory Dickory Dock, Little Tom Horner, Jack and Jill and Jack be Nimble Jack be Quick, stayed with me, I had forgotten all about that small gray squirrel. Until the past Saturday morning.

As you recall, Saturday was when the doomsday radio and TV weather forecasters were warning us we’d soon be inundated by snow; better get out shopping to lay in the cache of food and other necessities like rented videos to watch while snowbound. Ah, shades of Chicken Little. I had heard it so many times before.

The sky was to fall in billions of white snowflakes. Was the little boy crying wolf again?

Out of the Deep Larder

Just to be sure, I did as always when snow threatens, I went outside to heavily sprinkle sunflower seed and a mix of cracked corn and the usual bird feeds. Let the birds have full bellies to weather the storm.

Then it was time to safeguard the squirrels by tossing out the usual peanuts, also Brazil nuts and such leftovers from Christmas. The predicted deep fluffy snow would drain their energy, too.

Soon as I retreated to porch, the bushytails arrived en masse. But they didn’t follow their normal procedure of sampling one nut, then scampering off with many more to stow in some hidden nook for later use.

No, this time they grabbed a nut and, on the ground or on the branch of a nearby tree, they shelled it and feasted, one nut after another; no stowing, eat now while it’s there. Did they know something I didn’t? Had they been listening to WTOP’s dire forecasts? Or did they instinctively know their stomping grounds would be inundated by the white stuff?

While watching one squirrel chomping hard in the arduous task of getting the meat from a Brazil nut, I made the connection. Wolfe’s poem popped up from the catacomb within my brain’s memory bank.

Silhouetted on a tree limb in the dull background of an ominous morning, it looked like a teapot. Its tail was the long spout, the body was the container and its paws, holding the nut, were the handle. Coffee pot, teapot, what’s the difference? The poem described it. A mystery from my boyhood was solved as I recalled Like a small gray coffee pot sits the squirrel.

Mother, a city girl turned country wife, loved nature, especially birds, wildlife and trees. Just the nine words of the poem told the whole story. Probably that’s why she added the little poem to her cache of kid’s reading; she wanted us to look at nature in a different and abstract way. And I had failed to connect until the other day, more than 70 years after first hearing the poem.

Foragers before the Snow

I found a few other curious things that morning up here on the shores of Stoney Creek in North County. As I entered the woods on the cliff leading down to the creek, I flushed what must have been a couple dozen robins that stayed through the winter; not all migrate. I wondered whether they, too, were scouting around for shelter in deep snow. I wished I had a can of worms to offer them.

Then I saw two Carolina wrens, which in itself isn’t unusual. But they were in the thick stuff, and I’m accustomed to seeing them in the yard, sometimes attached to the thistle bag, though they prefer insects and such. One year they nested in the woodpile where spiders and insects were conveniently nearby. They’re a beautiful bird with prominent white above their eyes, bodies of chestnut, butterscotch below, about the size of a house finch.

Because of their name, many think of them as southern birds, but in my romps of recent years I’ve seen more of them. I’ve heard them singing even in winter. They have learned to adapt, stay where food is as long as winter isn’t too severe. My sister Ruth in Rhode Island has some in winter. Were they, too, casing the thickets for protection from the storm?

I have a pair of flickers around year ’round, but rarely do I see them in winter, only every once in a while at the suet feeder. Saturday in the edge of the woods I spotted one hopping along quite fast, as if looking for a meal before the storm. Then I saw something I’ve rarely seen anywhere, and nowhere at the Riviera Beach homestead. What a day for the unusual.

There on the ground was a vole scurrying about. Now I don’t know much about voles, but this looked like the meadow variety to me. They represent a meal for the pesky hawks that come and go or a snack for foxes, of which we have one roaming the cliff area. I saw that fox’s tracks after the snow fell, though only four inches of it. Had he caught that mole?

Ah the snow. Before it comes, if we observe there’s so much to see. Once it’s on the ground, it’s like the latest edition of a newspaper. All the wildlife news is laid out in tracks. And from them we get the whole story. Enough said.

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