One of the best things about not having a front and backyard of manicured lawn is more-than-human visitors who also spend time there. Not all of the visitors are as welcome as others and some of them have a problem with sharing.

Squirrels are both entertaining and infuriating. I cannot deny their antics make me laugh and I can’t deny that the squirrel who enjoys sunbathing on my deck railing doesn’t make me smile every single time. But. Where do I begin with how destructive they are? In the name of perhaps foiling some of their more unhappy habits, I borrowed a book from the library called Squirrels: A Wildlife Handbook by Kim Long. Surprisingly, there are not many books about squirrels that aren’t for children. And Long’s book isn’t exactly a thorough and detailed scientific and behavioral study, but I did learn a few things and now you are going to learn them too!

The name “squirrel” comes from the Greek skia meaning “shadow” and oura meaning “tail.” This is because squirrels use their tails to shade themselves from the sun, warm themselves in winter and also to protect themselves from weather. And yes, they are in the rodent family. The most astonishing thing I learned is that their incisors grow about six inches a year! This is why they are always gnawing on things. And it’s also how they can chew through hard nut shells and pine cones and whatever else is between them and food.

All the gnawing can get them in trouble though. The annual loss from power outages caused by squirrels chewing on transmission lines is in the millions of dollars. The author of the book clearly has no sympathy for power line chewing squirrels because she writes:

At least when messing with electrical power transmission, the squirrels are likely to suffer the ultimate punishment, death by electrocution.

I was both disturbed and highly amused by that comment.

The largest member of the squirrel family is the Woolly flying squirrel who lives in Pakistan. Woolly is up to two feet long with a two foot long tail and lives high in the mountains. Fun fact: the crystalized urine of Woolly is thought to be an aphrodisiac. How is it that some of the grossest things are aphrodisiacs? And I want to know who tried crystalized squirrel urine and then got lucky to begin with? I’m guessing it was some dude who was tricked into eating it and then ran into the woods to get away from his friends and found a sympathetic lady getting water at the creek. So then he went back to his friends and said, ha! joke’s on you suckers. Then all the dudes wanted crystalized woolly squirrel urine to help them find sympathetic ladies too.

Speaking of mating, squirrel courtship always begins with a mating chase. A male (sometimes more) will chase a female squirrel until she manages to evade the chase or gives up. So turns out when I see two squirrels chasing each other around a tree in the spring and think they are playing they are more likely getting ready to get squirrelly and make a litter of 1 – 5 babies.

On average squirrels live from 5 – 10 years and in captivity for as long as 20 years. But even making it to 5 years is against the odds. It’s estimated that only 15-25 percent of squirrels survive their first year of life. The survival rate jumps to 50 – 70 percent the second year. But only about 1 percent of squirrels born in any given year will live five years or more. Humans eating them used to be their biggest threat. My library even had a book with recipes in it! Most people don’t eat squirrels any longer, though I suspect when the climate apocalypse truly rolls into town, squirrels will be on the menu again. But for now, their biggest threat from humans is the car. Most squirrels however, die from a combination of scarce food, secondary infections caused by disease, and severe cold weather. Those diseases come mainly from parasites. Squirrels rarely carry rabies, but they might have tetanus, so keep up to date with your immunizations!

If you think being bitten by a squirrel is not likely to happen, I knew a girl in college who was riding her bike across campus one afternoon and had a squirrel run up her leg and bite her! Seriously. But then this girl was one of those people to whom all the weird things happened. Like the time she got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and speared herself through her foot with a wire hanger.

I see squirrel nests in trees all over the city and was surprised to learn that most squirrels have about 3 active nests with sometimes more inactive ones for backup. They periodically move from nest to nest as a way to control parasites, avoid predators, and have better access to food.

And a final fun fact. The joints in the hind feet of tree squirrels are flexible, allowing the legs to turn almost backwards to make efficient use of their claws. This is how they can descend trees head first. 

So here is the latest squirrel story from my house. I was having lunch last weekend and I heard a big thunk! My lunching chair faces the sliding glass doors onto the deck, so I look up from my book (not the squirrel book) to see a squirrel heaving itself back up onto the deck railing and looking up at the roof in a rather surprised way. I suspect what had happened was the squirrel had tried to jump from the deck rail onto the roof and slid right off because I have a metal roof and there would be nothing for squirrel claws to grab onto. Heh.

Then I watch as the squirrel gives the screen door on the sliding windows a once over and Spiderman leaps from the deck rail onto the screen! The squirrel turned around on the screen a few times, crawled over to the far edge, then jumped off the screen onto the deck rail opposite the beginning point, climbed down into the garden and scampered off. Why spider-squirrel couldn’t have walked around the deck rail like all the other squirrels do, I have no idea. But now my screen door has a few little squirrel claw marks on it.

In addition to the squirrels, whose population seems to be much larger this year than usual, I have a large rabbit who has been enjoying my peas. It has eaten every single one of my pea plants down to the ground. When the peas start to recover and start to grow up again, the rabbit eats them. I have never had a problem with a rabbit eating my peas before and it is breaking my heart. I love peas soooo much. And all the pea plants growing in my garden this year are from seeds I have been saving and carefully cultivating from year to year and I have no extras.

I saw the rabbit in the garden nibbling by the peas Friday evening and ran out and chased it away. Of course not ten minutes later ki was back in the garden nibbling again. I told James that it was moments like this when I wish we had a dog. So James decided to be the dog. Since he doesn’t have a bite or bark, he grabbed the spray bottle we keep vinegar in and ran out into the garden, yelling at the rabbit and aiming squirts of vinegar at ki. James is pretty sure the rabbit took a hit or two of vinegar, which to a sensitive rabbit nose will be very unpleasant.

Will it keep the rabbit from returning to eat my peas again? I don’t know. But I have not seen ki since, so fingers crossed the peas will be able to make a recovery.

Welcome garden visitors I have seen around are dragonflies and damselflies, monarch butterflies, and James has also seen a painted lady. And of course bees! The rose is blooming and I was out this morning before it got too hot picking rose petals with bumblebees buzzing all around me. Their buzzing used to freak me out, but now I find it rather calming. 

I made sure I didn’t pick any bees with the rose petals. And, yes, I was picking petals to make rose petal jam. And it is so good! Because we made jam—leaving the rose petals in—and not jelly—making a rose tea and then straining out the petals—two cups of petals made only one jar of jam. But it was easy and quick to make and the roses will still be blooming for a little while longer. We are out of pectin so James will be picking up more in the next day or two. I want to have at least one jar in the freezer to open in the winter and have some summer on my toast.

We have one other garden visitor who is a complete delight, a blue jay fledgling. When I arrived home from work on Friday the little jay was sitting in the middle of my front porch. Since then we have seen the little cutie huddling in the grasses and flowers in the front yard and sometimes on the path from the front porch to the gate into the backyard. Mom and Dad Jay are keeping watch and bringing food to junior. We are in the midst of a heatwave and haven’t had rain for over a week so we put a shallow bowl of water by the porch to help keep our bird friends hydrated. I have no idea how long it will take before the fledgling can fly, but what a delight to have a place for ki to be safe until then.

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17 thoughts on “Garden Visitors

  1. Well, you know that I’ve met more squirrels that I like than people…and I have had some pretty weird and startling close encounters over the years…but you can guess how I feel about that comment in the book, which I’ve heard before because there have been a couple of outages in the past year here also laid at the paws of squirrels. Sure, okay, it’s “just” a squirrel, but the thinking that one creature should die because it’s caused another creature inconvenience would put every human being on the chopping block. Anyway, I know you’re not saying that, but Sunday is newspaper day and I’ve been reading a lot of sad news, so maybe I’m extra-sensitive. I’ve tried finding books about squirrels too and was also surprised to see just how many there are…but all for kids. I borrowed them anyway, but they were disappointing. I was trying to find out about something I had witnessed what seemed to be a mourning ritual of a mother squirrel over her grown-but-young squirrel’s death and wanted to know more. There are a few anecdotal accounts of that sort online, but I couldn’t find any nature books with squirrel wisdom. Maybe I should put some tiny pieces of paper, bound, out on the porch and offer to help one of them with a book proposal. LOL

    1. You know I am complete agreement with you BIP regarding the squirrel electrocution comment. They are frustrating to be sure, but we humans are not more deserving than they are and have no right to blithely wish their end. Ironically, in spite of my regular squirrel battles, my avatar photo in the online cycling program I use is Squirrel Girl and has been for years 🙂 I would not be surprised about squirrel mourning. Since they are rodents and rats have been known to do something similar, it completely makes sense. I imagine there are plenty of more-than-human people who mourn the loss of kin. Be careful though about the paper you put out for that book proposal, it’s more likely to be a) eaten, or b) used as nesting material since squirrel culture is or the oral sort 😉

  2. Glad to read more about squirrels – thanks! In the park in our neighborhood we have some annoyingly fearless squirrels who’ll practically come right up to you begging for food. I think people feed them and encourage their bad habits unfortunately.

    We have tons of rabbits in our neighborhood. I saw two trying to “get busy” in my backyard yesterday! So far they haven’t bothered our pumpkins and tomatoes – I put out some hair from my hairbrush because I thought it might deter them, and I also encouraged my husband to pee around the bed, LOL – do you know if either of those things actually deters rabbits from gardens or are they old wives’ tales?

    1. People feeding squirrels will make them rather fearless I think. I have to admire how resilient they are even as I curse them.

      Oh rabbits. I hope they leave your pumpkins and tomatoes alone. I have used hair before as a deterrent but it did not work. The peeing, yes, that actually works., at least for raccoons. I got a coworker years ago to get her husband to try it out and it worked but had to be “reapplied” regularly. I assume it would work for rabbits too since you can buy predator sprays as rabbit deterrents. I think you need to rope your husband into to making it an experiment Laila and then report back! 😀

  3. I’m glad to know more about squirrels. We have a lot of very bold ones even though the cats and I chase them off the deck when we see them (we’ve had some nesting in the guttering, causing overflow and leaving parasites in the abandoned nest).
    We also have bold deer. They are pretty much unafraid and munch in our garden just feet away from me, no matter how much I wave my hands and yell. I do that because I don’t want any more deer ticks up next to the house than we already have. Also…people do hunt around here. The deer need to trust humans less.
    We also have raccoons and a whole family of groundhogs. We like the groundhogs fine as long as they’re not tunneling under our deck, right next to the house. I put apple cider vinegar and big rocks around where they try to dig close to the house.
    We need more possums in our yard. I have seen a few.

    1. Oh Jeanne between the deer and squirrels I admire that you have managed to create such an amazing garden! We have raccoons too but I haven’t seen any signs of them in my garden for years and I am glad about that since they would hurt the chickens if they had the chance. I do see possums now and then. I had one come right up and look in the window once! Interesting about apple cider vinegar as a groundhog deterrent. Should I ever have any I will keep that in mind!

  4. So, I have a new home. Thus new collection of squirrels. Apparently these ones have zero fear. I was lax in unpacking the bird feeding supplies, getting them into a metal can & up high on poles. The wee beasties tore into that box, of course. I cleaned up the mess and moved it all into my back porch greenhouse. A room with doors, albeit not very solid ones. Next morning I come into the kitchen, and there’s one, inside the porch, with the box ripped open, blinking at me through the kitchen window, complacently munching. She did not budge until after I’d opened the kitchen door and walked into the porch. Mind you, this entire space is about 6×8′. So she was just sitting there watching me about 2′ away. I could have picked her up and tossed her out. That I didn’t probably reinforced things about me that I wish she hadn’t learned…

    And yeah, aphrodisiacs! All really gross. Most really bizarre. And it does make you wonder… not only about who tried a specific gross thing and why… but these are supposed to increase sexual urge, right? Is that really needed? Wouldn’t it be sort of embarrassing to admit that it was? On top of ingesting things like crystallized squirrel piss, of course.

    Thanks for the story, Stephanie!

    1. Oh my! Those are bold squirrels! There must be a hole somewhere into your porch greenhouse. I have nightmares that squirrels will find a way into my attic and start nesting in there. I hope your bird feeders are squirrel proof. We stopped feeding birds because we could never find a feeder that survived the squirrel onslaught.

      Heh, yeah aphrodisiacs are supposed to increase sexual desire. Chocolate, roses, a fireplace, these things I can understand and get on board with. But I’m out on the crystalized squirrel urine 😀

  5. Oh? my God? That story about the girl getting bit by an absolutely random squirrel is like truly my nightmare — I know just what you mean, though, about some people being people to whom very weird stuff happens. My second-oldest sister is like that. One time she was eating a box of raisins and found G L A S S in the box of raisins. Glass! In her raisin box!

    Anyway, yeah, squirrels are little nightmares. I can’t even access my positive feelings about their cuteness anymore because they’re so annoying. I didn’t know that about their teeth, nor about their mating chase, although the latter I have witnessed enough times to have formed a strong hypothesis about what the little jerks were getting up to.

    1. Yeah the squirrels on campus were, I had one crawl into my lunch bag on a bench right next to me and run off with my apple. But biting someone who is riding a bike? So weird. Glass in a box of raisins? That’s pretty scary.

      Squirrel cuteness is totally negated by the jerkiness, though I have to admire their boldness sometimes.

  6. I have a few comments! 1. I love squirrels, even though they are destructive. We have a big fluffy gray one who comes in our yard periodically and we’ve named ki Miss Suzy, after the children’s book (do you know it? If not, look it up, it’s a favorite!) 2. I need that rose jam recipe PLEASE! Please. 3. I have a funny baby blue jay story (with a happy ending, or at least not a sad one); Keith wrote about it in his Catster column back when we still lived in Livermore. It’s here:

    Also, that is too bad about the peas! Do you have any extra chicken fencing laying around or something to protect them? We have deer but I’ve been surprised that they’ve left the peas alone this year. I totally neglected to plant lettuce but they seem to leave the kale alone too, except for a chomp or two. My roses, however, are a different story. I have to keep them sprayed with peppermint spray or they are destroyed.

    Garden on!

    1. Miss Suzy! Love it! My relationship with squirrels is definitely love/hate! Here is the recipe we used for the jam Though I only picked a quart mason jar full which is about 2 cups so we used less sugar. And we didn’t have quite enough pectin so used the pectin and some calcium water. It all still came out great! I think it is a very forgiving jam.

      I have some chicken wire but not enough so we are hoping the rabbit does not make a comeback. So far so good! I am so glad I don’t have to worry about deer. At least I don’t need to worry yet. With all the various animals learning how to live in the city–foxes and coyotes–deer could be next. Heck, there was a black bear last weekend in one of the suburbs and it wasn’t even one of the fringe ones!

      Loved Keith’s story! It made me laugh. Thankfully ours is not a scrub jay and the parents are pretty chill and non-attacking. They seem to just swoop in with food now and then. When James went out last night scoot the Dashwoods in for the night, the little jay was hanging out with them!

      1. Adorable! He found a flock! My brother suffered a mysterious critter attack on his chicken flock last year — they all disappeared except one. Not a sign of them! Foxes? Coyotes? Anyway, the one lone chicken was going to come live at my house since chickens like to be with a flock, but then she adopted the llamas and goats and seems to be very content with her new flock. Plus, the llamas are excellent watchdogs and keep her safe. A good solution for all!

        1. And, thank you for the rose jam recipe, I’m going to try it. Pectin shortages around here and all I could find online was low-sugar, so… I will be experimenting! lucky, plenty of roses around here.

        2. He found a flock and now he has flown the coop! 😀 How sad about your brother’s chickens. But the sole survivor adopting the llamas and goats is so sweet! Have fun experimenting with the rose jam. It’s so very tasty!

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