Musings on Squirrels and on the Limits of Science

When ripe acorns start dropping off of the many Oak trees in our neighborhood, the squirrels mostly disappear from our garden for about six weeks. We still see them when we walk the dogs; working during all the daylight hours and into twilight, gathering acorns one by one and carefully burying them in different spots. But they rarely come to the feeders, and we no longer happen on them dozing in the sunbeams filtering through the leaves of the Dawn Redwood in the afternoons.

But once Squirrel Scramble Season (as my one daughter named it years ago) passes, they decisively return to our garden. Not only do they frequent the feeders again, but they venture onto the patio and beyond (one or two even come up and peer into our kitchen windows and make tail signals).

We put a mix of hazelnuts, pecans, and walnuts out especially for them; some they bury, some they sit in the garden and eat. Some days, a morning feeding is enough to satisfy them, but if it’s really or suddenly cold, we put smaller amounts out at various times of the day (so their nuts don’t freeze). 

Last winter, we gave the regulars names and kept track of how often they visited. So far this year, our visitors all look like yearlings… but they seem more trusting, faster.  Maybe some of them were the young ones brought by their mother late this spring

Some people think of animals as having to learn every bit of not inherited behavior from scratch every generation, but there’s evidence that some species, like apes and crows, relay information across generations. Let me rephrase that: there’s evidence we humans have detected, collected, quantified. 

I greatly respect science…but the more I live in the world, the less it satisfies. Whether we want to acknowledge them or not, there are definite limits to what we can notice and understand into proving. In the natural world. In everything.

What if we met this shortfall by dwelling in possibility?

…As this relates to squirrels, what if we entertained the idea that squirrels too might have a tradition of passing down stories of friends, enemies, adventures and quests across generations…whether we could prove it or not? Whether we could interpret the stories or not?

What would it change if we spent time not just reading about scientific findings, but also considering the vast and astounding possible?

Scenes from a Burrow Building

Our resident mother chipmunk looks like she’s getting ready for a second litter soon. From what we can tell, she’s eating about the same amount, but looking a little rounder, and more significantly, she’s getting her little paws dirty and undertaking a big renovation on her burrow.

She has filled in the previous main entrance (where the first litter of the season emerged from)…

…and made a few new holes further away, but in the same general area (which, luckily, we can see from the kitchen window and so not disturb her as we watch her work).

One of the holes is interesting because it’s between two of our patio paving stones; she dug out a little bit of the grout between them, then the sand underneath, then some rocks, then dirt. The hole isn’t very deep and it turns sharply into a tunnel, so it’s probably an entrance rather than a plunge hole.

It’s one thing to read that chipmunks are amazing diggers, but it’s much more impressive to see them action. This isn’t cavalier digging; it’s a meticulous feat of engineering and strength. She tests potential hole sites before she excavates them; she transports dirt and gravel and rocks offsite via her multi-purpose (Mary Poppins magic bag) cheek pouches; she brings back grass and softer dirt, presumably to line some of the tunnels. And that’s just what we can see above ground!

Our mother chipmunk has also been rolling some rocks back and forth in front of her new burrow entrance. Are they a door? A warning? A decoration? She moves them a few times a day, into different configurations, both from inside the hole and outside. (When she’s inside the hole, the rocks look like they’re moving themselves).

I hope she’s proud of her hard work, but more importantly, I hope her new burrow keeps her (and her forthcoming babies) safe. Another small marvel among us, we’re looking forward to watching over it– what we can see of it– in the weeks to come.

Desire Paths

Reader, here is where I confess that perfectly manicured lawns (and gardens) make me anxious. You will never (ever) find me using pesticide sprays; I will never be accused of over-mowing (on the contrary, sometimes when my husband or son plan to mow the grass, I distract or persuade them out of it).

I love the sight of clover, of grass that’s just tall enough to ripple in the wind like waves (or like fields in Studio Ghibli movies). Even in a tended garden, when I’m outside, I prefer my reminders of humanity to be subtle. And nature, though it has definite elements of symmetry and order, also leans into a fecund sort of untidiness.

And so, the grass over here is often longer (and greener!) than it might be elsewhere in the neighborhood. And recently, I’ve noticed that this has a new practical consequence: in a lawn a bit in need of mowing, the garden wildlife’s desire paths become easier to spot.

I first learned of “desire paths” years ago, when I read Dominique Browning’s book Paths of Desire: The Passions of a Suburban Gardener. Also called “desire lines” (or “free-will ways,” or “pirate paths,” or “social trails”), desire paths form out of the erosion of use and convenience, rather than out of design. Mostly, they have to do with the comings and goings of people.

But in the case of the most likely makers of desire paths in our garden (chipmunks and rabbits and squirrels), they lead between food source and cover. Hungry, then satisfied, their lightweight bodies are just heavy enough to part the sea of grass through innumerable round trips of gathering.

I love seeing these little open-air channels through the lawn. And, in trying to create a better environment to track the garden wildlife in, I love having an excuse not to mow too often.

Plus, existentially, these desire paths give me hope that all the little mundane movements all of us creatures make daily leave a mark in some way.

People-Watching Animals

Recently, I’ve started collecting photos of backyard animals watching me watch them. I don’t mean our eyes meet across the yard as I’m photographing them going about their foraging/nesting/mating/romping activities; I mean I’m catching them chilling somewhere (usually on a branch or on the fence) expressly checking me out.

I spend a fair amount of time outside, sitting with my camera, trying to be quiet and emanate good energy and be aware of my surroundings. Animal watching is something I do for the purpose of education and enjoyment. It’s something I do daily, but as a choice, a hobby.

But if I were an animal, people watching would be a matter of survival. I’d have to be aware of where the humans were and what they were doing; if they were dangerous; if they had anything to eat… As humans encroach on animal habitats, and human-animal interactions become more frequent and common, people-watching becomes even more crucial for animals.

But let’s say an animal feels relatively safe in a backyard, and he has enough to eat and enough experience with the resident humans that he isn’t actively terrified of them…can people watching ever become fun for him? Is there a point at which a particular human can become better than benign?

In other words: am I imagining things or might any of these creatures find watching me entertaining?

And what do I look like to them?

A short list of what I have going for me as a potential people-watching target: my hair is drey-like; my skin coverings (also known as clothes) are often the colors of wildflowers; I sometimes smell like lavender; I emit a great variety of calls; I seem to have an additional arm (my camera) that I point and click at animals, but that’s otherwise harmless; I share food in the form of seeds and nuts (even better, sometimes I massively spill seeds and nuts while filling our feeders); I seem to have an alliance with a passel of dogs; I’m easy to spot; my burrow is large and above ground but I’m often just sitting outside it.

On the list of cons: I’m a person and maybe inherently suspicious.

And it’s because I’m a person that I think it’s important to remind myself that I can be watcher and watched one, that my time outdoors is a dialogue, that so much more than what I’m aware of is out there…that every day, I should open my eyes wider.

Hello, world!

Last week, six baby chipmunks emerged from the burrow where they had, unbeknownst to us, been born and growing for the previous month. Their mother, chunky and slightly beleaguered-looking, leapt out first and headed straight for the seeds and nuts that were waiting at one of the nearby bird feeders. The babies hung back. A few brave ones peeked out and nosed the air. Presumably, they were pushed out because their siblings piled up behind them, eager for a turn. More tiny ears, and shiny eyes, and black-feathered noses peeked between the blades of grass.

I had been sitting at the kitchen table, looking out the window, drinking coffee…but what spell can even caffeine cast upon you when there are adorable creatures about? I forgot my coffee and knelt at the window to watch them more closely and unobtrusively photograph them.

I can’t be certain that it was their first outing, but their expressions seemed to indicate it was. I am someone who believes animals have complex experiences and emotional lives and I read it as: wonder mixed with wariness. The world is BEAUTIFUL! Also, SO SCARY!

I haven’t written formally in years (and I’m rusty), but here I am writing. The nature I experience daily is (just) a suburban woodland-adjacent garden, but there is something wild and worthwhile in it every day, and I want to share it with you.

Wherever you are reading this, I hope you enjoy what’s to come.