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.