Dear Readers, one of the delights of autumn is that, once the leaves come off, I can see what’s been going on in the whitebeam tree in the garden. This year, what has been revealed are two and a half squirrel dreys, which are great balls of dead leaves, normally stuck into the V at the conjunction of two or more branches. They can be used as nests, for mothers with babies, or as overnight shelters. Those built by young squirrels are less secure than those built by experienced adults, and indeed one of the dreys in my garden is already disintegrating. However, the one in the picture is still very much inhabited.
As you know, I’ve been spending a lot of time away from my house during the past few months, so it was a real pleasure to be able to top up my own bird feeders on Friday. While I was in the shed, I heard the rustle of dead leaves and the skitter of nails on bark. I peered outside to see two young squirrels skidding down the tree trunk. They saw me, thumped onto the roof of the shed and bounced off into next door’s garden, leaving me stunned at their sheer turn of speed.
This morning, I saw a tabby cat, ears back and tail between its legs, galloping across the garden, hotly pursued by what looked like one of yesterday’s squirrels. A magpie was also put to flight unceremoniously. When all the predators were put to flight the squirrel retired to the tree, where s/he growled and flicked her tail for a few moments. And then, s/he settled down and started the job of clearing all of the nuts out of the new terracotta feeder that I bought a few weeks ago.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a squirrel with such an extraordinarily long tail. It seems to stream behind like a pennant. And there is a lot of streaming to be done, because no sooner have the peanuts been raided than the squirrel heads off to bury them under the yew bush. Grey squirrels have been known to pretend to horde food if they think another squirrel is watching, going through all the motions of digging a hole but then retreating to actually cache the nuts elsewhere. This implies that squirrels have a ‘theory of mind’, – they can intuit what another animal is thinking. This is a great hurdle that scientists and philosophers expect animals to jump over before they can be admitted to the realm of animals worth paying attention to. As more and more animals are shown to have this attribute, no doubt we’ll soon have to find some other way of differentiating ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Grey squirrels will also ‘scatter-horde’ – this means that they will hide their food temporarily in a location close to the food source, and will later dig it up and bury it in another location. This enables them to take advantage of a sudden rich source of food (like a recently-filled terracotta bird-feeder for example) without having to waste time finding a hiding-place for it. Grey squirrels do not hibernate deeply, and so will emerge whenever they need food. It’s been shown that the squirrels have a very good spatial memory, which is just as well as they may make several thousand caches during each season. As some of these nuts and seeds will not be needed and will germinate, they also play a role in spreading plants from one location to another. They will also dig up bulbs (especially tulips) and plant them elsewhere, leading to some surprising emergences and absences during April and May.
I know that some people won’t share my view, but i rather like being visited by squirrels. Yes, they eat ridiculous quantities of expensive sunflower seeds, but I have found that they prefer the rather cheaper peanuts, and so they now have a supply of these all for themselves. Like all wild animals, they can be messy and anarchic by our standards, but then life is messy and anarchic and unpredictable, and we kid ourselves if we think we’re ever truly in control of anything. When I watch their ceaseless vigilance and hectic activity, I’m reminded that for the squirrel the finding and caching of food is a life-or-death activity, but that my solving a database issue or sorting out my malfunctioning printer is not. Time spent in the company of plants and animals is truly balm for the over-heated brain.