Pondering, Photographing, and Writing about Wild Places

Squirrels: Rodents… or Role Models?

It is January and only four bird feeders hang in my small urban yard, down from the six of spring and summer. Flanking the house to the north and south and visible to office and dining room windows, tube feeders filled with sunflower seeds attract house finches, Carolina chickadees, an occasional pine siskin and a plethora of introduced European house sparrows. Sharing the dining room windows on the sunnier side of the property, a sock filled with thistle seeds invites goldfinches and house finches. In the back yard, hanging beneath a young hackberry tree, a suet feeder appeals mostly to mockingbirds, while the hoped-for woodpeckers—downy, hairy and red-bellied, along with their cousins the yellow-bellied sapsuckers, stick to the meals nature provides beneath the bark of the larger trees. Around the backyard, Carolina wrens find insects in leaf litter while ruby-crowned kinglets hunt bugs in the trees; song sparrows, white-throated sparrows and northern cardinals forage for seeds; and doves, both mourning and turtle, find scraps wherever they are able, spending much of their days roosting in the higher branches unbothered by the woodpeckers tapping around them. The occasional red-tailed and Cooper’s hawks visit the yard–red tails for the squirrels, “Coops,” for the concentration of songbirds around the feeders. Dove in talons, they often dine from the same limbs preferred by their prey.

Resting on the table along with two bird guides and a journal, my binoculars sit ready to distract me from chores, meals, bathing, work…other distractions. It is a nervously flitting kinglet which pulls me away from the dishes this morning. It’s size and activity make it readily identifiable without glasses, but I want a closer look. The male of the species sports a brilliant ruby crown which is invisible from most angles, but radiates more brilliantly than a hummingbird’s throat when the angle is right. This one was too quick for me, but before I set down the binoculars, another movement in the yard catches my attention.

There are always squirrels around my property. They glean leftovers beneath the bird feeders and find occasional snacks in the compost pile. Always nervous, they rarely stop moving. Even when feeding, their tails flick and their heads cock one way then the other as they scan the sky for hawks. But this morning, the two squirrels in the corner of the yard were not thinking about predators. Gently, they circled one another, paused to examine each other’s reproductive parts then faced again—one circling, then the other. They were slow, deliberate, and gentle as they prepared for the predictable. When ready, the male carefully mounted his mate. I expected chattering and proverbial bunny-like actions—quick, staccato, brief. Instead, he eased himself into position, embraced his partner, pressed himself against her, rotated his hips inward and held himself there. For ten or fifteen seconds (a long tome for rodents, I suspect) they kept their position. Business complete, he dismounted her just as gently as he had mounted then she turned to face him. There was a moment of grooming around the necks and faces of each other then, together, they scurried around the tree and disappeared.

Although I see squirrels when I watch the birds, I have never spent much time watching them. They’re rodents. If given the chance, they will decimate a bird feeder, chew through wiring or make a mess of an attic with their nest and keep homeowners awake at night. I have always categorized them, along with the feral cats in the neighborhood, as hawk food. Having now seen them in such a moment of intimacy, however—slow dancing through their reproductive ritual rather than doing the jitterbug, him engaging in tender foreplay instead of running her down and pinning her to a limb, the two of them taking a moment to just be together afterward—I had to rethink. Perhaps these little critters with their luxurious tails, and light chestnut patches on their speckled grey flanks deserve a little more respect.

Mine is an urban neighborhood and watching the squirrels this morning reminded me of the many undereducated young men wandering the streets and alleys here who father many children from as many different women–wearing the number of children they have as a badge of honor. A majority of the children on some streets have fathers in jail and more children are raised by grandparents than by parents. Of the half-dozen little boys who visit my porch for stories and play football in my yard, not one has a father at home, four are raised  by grandparents and at least two have fathers in prison.

I don’t know if there is a valid comparison between these men and the squirrel I watched this morning. I don’t know if the rodent couple in my tree will be monogamous. I don’t know if he will be a good father, provide for his offspring, remain true to his mate, or if she will have many partners. Perhaps he is already impregnating another. Maybe he will be gorging at the compost while several females tend to their nests alone. I suppose I could study them and find the truth, but I would rather take my observation of gentle, tender behavior and extrapolate. I would rather run with an anthropomorphic assessment of a wild moment and believe that squirrels are somehow honorable and moral, caring, nurturing and loving. I want to believe that we can look anywhere in nature, even to the squirrels, for an example of how we as humans ought to interact.

Of course I know better than this. What about the infamous black widow who devours her mate or the parrots in Australia I saw recently on PBS who fly miles upon miles to mate with as many partners as possible or the leghorn rooster who dominates the yard and lords over his hens?

I have been warned of the dangers of anthropomorphism but I am a romantic, and I am also a big fan of nature and all her processes. Any day now I am certain to see one of those red-tailed hawks in my yard, wings guarding a meal of freshly-killed squirrel and I know that her dinner might very well be one of the lovers I watched this morning. At that moment I will have a choice. I can either cling to my romanticism and mourn the loss of a good father, or I can be amazed by the prowess of the predator. Most  likely, I will not put much thought into it. As I run for the binoculars to get a better look, I will pump my fist like Tiger Woods after an eagle putt and root for the hawk.

After this morning’s observations I will probably pay a little bit more attention to the squirrels from now on as I feed the songbirds that in turn feed the accipiters, but I will not avoid anthropomorphizing when I do. I will, however, look for the lessons to be found as I apply human traits to the animals–appreciating both the lovemaking of squirrels and the hunting prowess of hawks;  and I will continue to agonize over the situation among so many young people in the neighborhood, realizing that whatever lessons might abound in nature, they probably won’t notice the squirrels and, if they did, would be unlikely to learn anything from them about parenting and respect. Those, I’m afraid, are values we humans must find a way to teach our own children…by our own examples.

What do you think?