Saturday, February 5, 2011

Fox Squirrel

Sciurus niger, the Fox Squirrel

Mama Fox Squirrel has a short tail. The brown glob on the tree is peanut butter.

Mama Fox Squirrel sitting to enjoy her chunky peanut butter.

Fox Squirrel in Burr Oak

I love watching the squirrels at the bird feeders.  We have the russet, amicable fox squirrels as well as smaller, rowdy gray squirrels.   I hung a simple seed feeder from a low branch of a young Nuttall Oak tree which my husband had planted. The branches were about as big around as my finger – just stout enough to support a feeder.
As it turned out, the bird feeder hung opposite one of the other thin branches.  A mama fox squirrel quickly noticed this convenient arrangement.  She regularly came to have breakfast in my garden.  Oh, I knew it was the same fox squirrel because of her unique, acrobatic eating style. 
          Although the feeder was on her branch’s level, it was still about a squirrel’s length away.  She found that she could stretch to reach the feeder with her front paws, while still clinging to the branch with her back paws.  She wrapped her long, bushy tail around the branch for stabilization.  After she grabbed the feeder, she snatched a mouth-full of seeds then swung down and around, 360 degrees, coming  up behind the branch, as though she were a gymnast swinging on the high bar (by her feet).  Back in an upright position, she’d sit comfortably to eat her food.  It was something to watch her do this over and over.  I wondered that she did not get dizzy.
One spring morning the dew was heavy.  The grass was sodden and the tree branches were glistening with moisture.  I saw Mama Squirrel out having her usual breakfast at the bird feeder, swinging circles around the thin branch.
          Later that day I glanced toward the feeder and was disturbed to see a clump of reddish brown fur at the tree branch.  I ran outside to find part of the squirrel’s tail twisted on the branch.  It seemed that with the wet conditions of that morning, something bad had happened.  As she circled the branch, her luxurious tail wrapped around the branch and became wet and tangled.  (Any person who has experienced the misfortune of twirling and tangling a brush in his or her long hair can understand the hopelessness of the situation.)   I do not know, but I think the poor squirrel must have snipped her own tail in the panic to free herself.   I unspun the tail from the branch.  There were seven inches of thick, reddish sable, but beneath the beautiful  hair I could feel  2 inches of boney tail segment.    
Immediately,  I moved the feeder to a better location where squirrels could reach it without gymnastics or injury.  Squirrels use their tails for so many things:  shade, warmth, balance, communication.  Their Genus, Sciurus, means “shade –tail”.  I felt just awful that she had been hurt in my garden.
This distressing episode happened about four years ago.  I am glad to report that Mama Squirrel still comes to my garden to drink from the bird bath and to eat bird seed.  Her bobbed tail is disguised a bit by a growth of longer hair.   Of course, she is still easy to identify.