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COLUMN: Entertainer is an enigma wrapped up in a squirrel

Columnist has come to enjoy the 'slapstick humour of this troupe of performers' at the bird feeder ... but not when they invade the attic
A red squirrel enjoys the bounty of a bird feeder while also providing some entertainment with his pals.

As I peer out the kitchen window at the backyard feeder layout, there is a circus of activity going on. Normally, we have two red squirrels filching seeds from the bird feeders, but on this day there are six of the rascals frolicking in the sunlight.

Two are engaged in an extreme game of tag, one chasing the other across the entire width of the yard, only to switch around and come flying back to the tree from which they commenced.

Another two are conducting an extreme high-speed follow-the-leader exercise around tree trunks and then high up into the thin branches. And the last two have deployed themselves on the feeders, happily munching sunflower seeds while the others go running in circles.

Red squirrels, like chipmunks, have endeared themselves with their playful antics to the generations of humans who have lived here ... but only up to a point. When the outside shenanigans move inside to the attic then the fun and games are over.

Self-appointed woodland guardians, red squirrels have an amazing ability to detect movement from anything that may be untoward to the harmony of said woodlot. If an intruder is noted, the staccato burr from the squirrels is an early warning system to everything else that lives nearby. (And then add a couple blue jays who also like to spread the alarm, and you find yourself quite detected.)

These small squirrels can be perky to the point of impudent! They appear sassy and quite unafraid if shooed away from their bird feeder perch. I found a quote several years ago that sums up a red squirrel’s personality; it was written in the mid-1800s by zoologist Clinton Merriam:

“The red squirrel combines qualities so wholly at variance, so unique, so incomprehensible, that one scarcely knows in what light to regard him. His inquisitiveness, audacity, inordinate assurance, and exasperating insolence, together with his love of mischief and shameless disregard of all civilities of life, would lead one to suppose that he was entitled to respect," said Merriam.

“And yet his intelligence, his untiring perseverance, and genuine industry, the cunning cleverness displayed in many of his actions and the irresistible humour with which he does everything, command him a certain degree of admiration. He is arrogant, impetuous, and conceited to an extreme degree. These contradictions in character and idiosyncrasies in disposition render him a psychological problem of no easy solution.”

Mr. Merriam gives a good, all-inclusive description of these little dynamos.

As I watch the goings-on, there appears to be several activities being undertaken, although I admit that I am uncertain as what exactly is going on. The two that are doing the ‘tag-you’re-it’ routine have been retracing their footprints for about five minutes steady. The chaser chases the chasee in a direct line of travel for about 50 metres, upon at which time the chaser returns to the string point (a big spruce) and the chasee dutifully returns as well. Then they immediately do it again.

I am wondering if this is more than just play, perhaps it is like what beavers do in the spring, the purging of last year’s young to make way for this year’s youngsters? When looked at in this viewpoint, I can see a reluctant to leave 1-year old being shooed by Mother squirrel to vamoose! “But Mommy, I don’t want to leave!”

And then there are those other two in the rocket-fueled chase scene of nose-to-tail racing around tree trunks and then up and out to the finest of diameter branches… where sometime they both launch themselves in space and land with a plop-plop in the crusty snow below. Is this territory behaviour? Or a courtship scene?

Being a rodent with gnawing teeth, one could reasonably assume these critters ate vegetation and seeds, but that is only partially true. Red squirrels love a nice change of diet for time to time and will readily consume meat. A couple of times in our valley a grouse or small bird hits the window and dies, and the red squirrels quickly move in for the feast.

Along one of our snowshoe trails is found another sign of the local red squirrels… mushrooms and pine cones stuffed into the crooks and hollows of other trees in the area. The squirrels are excellent at putting away a little extra for a cold and snowy day.

But the squirrels are not too hard done by around here, as we do like their antics and under the guise of putting out sunflower seeds for the birds, we accept the slapstick humour of this troupe of performers. Just stay out of the attic!!