Dear Readers, I woke up on Friday feeling overwhelmed , both by all the preparations for Christmas and by an unexplained pain in my ankle, which has made walking, my usual stress-alleviation technique, difficult. But nonetheless I decided to take a gentle meander into Cherry Tree Wood for the first time in a few months. The place is looking a little unkempt at the moment, as many parks do in winter. The pavilion, which was going to be turned into a café but where the project now seems to be on hold, is literally falling down. There are empty beer cans by some of the benches. But the oak trees and hornbeams are still full of copper-coloured leaves, and there are squirrels everywhere. The search for nuts is on everyone’s mind. Squirrels sit comfortably among the tree roots, turning the acorns with their little hands and nibbling away. In the trees, two squirrels are growling at one another, tails thrashing. A toddler in a little padded suit staggers, arms outstretched, towards one squirrel, who looks at him warily, and bounds away when the child is within touching distance. The squirrels at the entrance to the park are particularly bold, and I suspect that packets of peanuts have been involved in previous encounters.
As I walk further into the forest, I find another, smaller squirrel in the top branches of a hornbeam. He seems to be stalking a blue tit. I find this very interesting, not least because I’m fairly sure that the blue tit is aware of the squirrel and seems unperturbed. I know that squirrels will occasionally take birds’ eggs and fledglings, but I’ve never seen one trying his luck with an adult before. And yet, here we are. The blue tit lets the squirrel get within a bound, and then flies off. I wonder if the squirrel ever gets lucky? All that protein would be a fine meal for a small rodent.
The blue tit is interested in other things, however. At the top of the tree is a drey, a squirrel nest, and the blue tit is pecking through it, probably for the insects and parasites that shelter there. The little bird is tossing the leaves aside and doing a fine job of gradually dismantling the squirrel’s shelter from the bottom up.
A swoop of round wings, a flash of black and white and pink, and a jay arrives. It too is after the acorns. A squirrel complains when the jay starts to root around at the base of an oak tree, and I suspect that it has buried some of its winter stash there. All the grumbling in the world won’t deter a jay, however, and it carries on picking out the nuts and carrying them away, to bury them somewhere else. No wonder, in the spring, that there are little oak trees popping up all over the place. The scene is the same in my garden, where the jays, having been absent all summer, are now appearing as soon as I put out any peanuts. Do they have a sixth sense, I wonder, or am I under constant surveillance?
Intellectually I know that there are inter-dependencies in any plant and animal community, but there were links here that I had never thought of before. I did not know that squirrels ever hunted adult birds, or that jays stole the hidden acorns of the squirrels, or that blue tits dismantled squirrel dreys. Everyone is opportunistic, everyone is just trying to get by. And the shifting patterns of advantage and disadvantage are constantly being redressed by some living thing or another. Maybe the overall beneficiaries are the oak trees, as their seeds are carried away from the overwhelming shade of the adult tree and into better, lighter surroundings. Who knows? I do know that for forty minutes the pain in my ankle went completely unnoticed, and I walk off to catch a bus into town with a happy sense of well being and equanimity. We can only do what we can do to make a celebration a happy one, and we cannot control everything – there is too much complexity. Sometimes, we just have to trust in the providence that looks after squirrels, blue tits, jays and oak trees.