Shallow Thoughts : : squirrels

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing, Science, and Nature.

Sun, 19 Jan 2014

Our black squirrel: Little Blackie

[LB, our black squirrel] We've been having occasional visits from black squirrels for maybe five years now, but mostly they're shy and don't stay long.

Black squirrels are interesting. As far as I know, they're a color variation of the usual Eastern grey squirrel we get as our most common yard visitor here in San Jose. (For a while we got a lot of Eastern Fox squirrels, but I guess that population moved away since I haven't seen one in years.) Our native Western greys are larger and more wary, and keep to the hills and forests, never venturing down into the city.

Black squirrels have been common in Palo Alto for many decades, I'm told, but it's only in the last five or ten years that they've started expanding southward. First I would see a few in Sunnyvale and Mountain View, then a couple in Campbell, and then, finally, a few years after that, they made it here to West San Jose. (Campbell is farther south than our house, but the squirrels as they expanded their range probably moved toward the less urban hills and parks.)

This year we had our first friendly, regular black squirrel visitor. I called him Little Blackie after the pony in True Grit. He's by far the most beautiful squirrel we've ever had -- his fur glistens in the sun and looks amazingly soft. Unfortunately he's also difficult to photograph well -- the point-and-shoot tends not to focus on him very well, and he's always underexposed even when I use exposure compensation.

LB was very quick (as squirrels go) to figure out that our fencepost was a good source of walnuts, and even pretty quick to make the association that people near the office door means that another nut may appear soon. (Most squirrels take forever to figure that out, and when you come out to put up another nut, they run away and don't come back for hours.)

After a few months of regular feeding, he was tolerating us only a few feet away as we put nuts on the fencepost, and then it was a few more months before he worked up the courage to take nuts from our hands. He still doesn't linger -- he grabs the nut and runs.

[black squirrel LB hanging by his feet] This morning he was quite entertaining, when he decided I was coming out too slowly (I try not to make sudden movements when approaching wild animals) and jumped from the fencepost to run along the gate. I met him halfway, and offered the nut to him as he sat on the gate. He grabbed it, but his nervousness about being in a different place made him too hasty, and he missed his grab and the nut went bouncing down onto the driveway.

He looked at me with a bemused expression, jumped back to the fencepost and ran back along the fence -- but couldn't quite work up the nerve to run down and get the nut off the driveway. So I fetched it for him, and offered it to him up on the fence.

Nothing doing -- that was too weird. So he waited until I went back to the fencepost, whereupon he scampered right over, grabbed the nut and ran off to hang from the tree.

Wacky Blackie! Here are the best photos of him I've been able to get so far: Little Blackie, our black squirrel.

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[ 10:29 Jan 19, 2014    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sat, 22 Oct 2011

Finding buried treasure -- harder than it sounds

While we were having dinner, one of the local squirrels came by to look for her own dinner under the cedar in the front yard, just outside the window by our dining table.

I remember, when I was young, reading somewhere that squirrels remember where they bury each nut, so they can return and dig it up later. Whoever wrote that clearly never spent much time watching actual squirrels.

I've also read, more recently and in more reputable places, that squirrels find buried nuts by seeking out likely burial spots then using their sensitive noses to find the underground nuts.

If so, the sensitive nose thing is overrated. It's actually quite a bit more work than that description makes it sound.

If you're ever hungry and wanting to dig up a snack from underground, here's the tried and true, time tested squirrel technique:

Hop over to a place that looks likely. Bury your nose in the ground, and plow a furrow with said nose for a few inches.

No nut? Pull your nose out of the ground, hope over to another location that looks appealing (not one right next to where you just were -- do not by any means use any kind of exhaustive quartering technique), bury your nose in the ground and repeat.

Every fifth or sixth time, it's permissable to sit up and brush dirt off your nose before going back to the hunt.

After about twenty minutes of this, our visitor finally did find something. She triumphantly sat up, brushed herself off, turned the prize around in her mouth for a while, then ran over to the cedar to hang upside down for dinner.

Curiously, what she found looked like a live oak acorn -- not something that's very common here in the suburbs. (Our yard sports a red oak, but it has tiny acorns which don't interest the squirrels in the slightest.)

She took five minutes to eat her prize, then returned to the hunt for another forty minutes. If she found anything else during that time, I didn't see it, though she might have found something while she was on the other side of the tree.

Note that I didn't say this was an efficient technique ... only that it was time tested.

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[ 18:07 Oct 22, 2011    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Mon, 12 Nov 2007

Little Orphan Annie

Something rustled madly in the star jasmine when I walked past. Probably just a sparrow, I thought. Ever since the sparrows discovered the squirrel nuts, there's been a gang camped out in the guava tree just outside the office door at all times.

I put it out of my mind until an hour later, when Dave reported, "There's an orphan squirrel in the star jasmine. It looks too small to be out on its own. Where is its mother?"

We put a few pieces of walnut out by the bush and watched. After a little while the youngster came out to investigate, moving very slowly and awkwardly, and sat next to the walnut pieces. It didn't sit normally: its weight was back on its tail, with hind legs stuck out in front and crossed, like a tiny squirrel Buddha.

The tiny youngster took a piece of walnut in its front paws and stared at it blankly as if wondering what to do with it. But ten minutes later we saw that it was nibbling, slowly and tentatively. It took a long time, but the orphan eventually made it through three pieces of walnut.

We provided more walnut (the fearful youngster scurried back under the jasmine) and a little dish of water and waited, but the orphan didn't reappear. An hour later, we saw a small young squirrel climbing a tree in the front yard. Could it be the same one? The baby we'd seen didn't look capable of climbing anything. Could it have been merely weak from hunger and fear, and a few nuts revived it?

The next morning, a new squirrel appeared at our feeding area in the backyard. A young female, small but confident. She was able to move both up and down fenceposts and leap from the fence to the oak tree, usually difficult maneuvers for a squirrel trainee. Surely this couldn't be the same tiny, shivering orphan we'd seen the day before?

But after finding a nut I'd left on the fence, this youngster sat in the same odd Buddha fashion to eat it.

Little orphan Annie turned out to be smart as well as agile. She caught on to the nut shelf early -- she was hanging out in the guava (whose springy branches make a great playground for a light little squirreling) when a mouse made a rare appearance, darting out from under the deck to the nut shelf to grab a nut and run back to its hole. I could see Annie's head move as she watched the mouse; I could almost imagine her eyes widening. No need to tell her twice! She was down the guava and over to the nut shelf like a flash to pick up a piece for herself.

Annie hung around for about a week after that (getting chased by Ringtail a few times) but then she stopped visiting. Life is tough for young squirrels. I hope Annie's all right, and just moved on to find a nuttier place to live.

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[ 11:39 Nov 12, 2007    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 21 Jun 2007

Notch has had her kids

Whew -- I think our resident squirrel Notch has finally had her long-overdue litter. It wasn't immediately obvious, but she's been deflating over a period of about a week. Since then she's gone off her mad burying frenzy and gone back to eating the nuts we give her.

Last week, while she was still pregnant, she was kind enough to give me a nice nut-burying exhibition right outside the office door, which I got on video. She digs a hole, places the nut in and tries to pack it down, decides it's not deep enough and pulls it out again, digs a little deeper, jackhammers the nut into place with her nose, fills in the hole then does her usual careful job of covering over the hole and arranging leaves on top of it to hide the evidence.

Then she turns and digs up a nut that was buried two inches away and eats it. Video on youtube.

In other squirrel news, on an afternoon hike at Rancho San Antonio yesterday I saw an Eastern Fox squirrel in the trees about halfway up the first leg of the PG&E trail. Foxes are an invasive species (just like Notch and her Eastern Grey friends who inhabit most of the suburbs around here), so that's not good news for the native Western Greys who have traditionally inhabited the park. I suppose it was just a matter of time, since RSA is so close to suburbia, before the non-native eastern squirrels invade and drive out the wimpy native squirrels. It'll be interesting to see whether the western greys can hold their own, or, if not, how long the invasion takes.

In non-squirrel news, we had a few very hot days last week (mid 90s) and fled to the redwood forests to escape the heat one day, and smelled that odd chlorine odor I've noticed before. The smell was fairly faint this time. I asked my Bio teacher about it in class last semester, but he didn't know what it might be, so it remains a mystery for now. I'll be tracking whether it's there on all hot days, or just some, this summer.

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[ 14:49 Jun 21, 2007    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 10 Jun 2007

Young Squirrels are Nuts!

It's springtime in the backyard! I saw a couple of mockingbird fledglings cheeping to be fed in the pyrocantha while we were having dinner last night, though we never saw the mockingbird nest. And we have a couple of California towhee fledgelings who come by to eat sunflower seeds. Mama towhee first brought them by one by one, broke the seeds up (apparently a sunflower seed is a little too big for a towhee to swallow in one piece) and fed them to the cheeping youngsters. But now they're coming by on their own, and still having some trouble breaking up the seeds, but they're making progress. Unfortunately one of the chicks hops only on one foot, apparently having injured the other already.

It's springtime for our local squirrels, too. Ringtail, the fox squirrel, is still around, and we have an occasional visit from a male fox squirrel as well. Notch, our longtime resident grey squirrel diva, is heavily pregnant. She looks like a little furry bowling pin and we keep thinking she's going to have her litter at any moment, but days pass and she continues to grow. We noticed her pregnancy some time in mid-April (it was quite visible by then), and gestation is supposed to be around 44 days, so either she's way overdue, or the books are wrong about Eastern grey squirrel gestation. (Or she's just fat and not pregnant at all, but I don't think so since her nipples are very prominent too.)

She still moves remarkably gracefully and has no trouble with leaping and climbing, unlike Nonotchka, who lumbered and waddled when she got to this stage last summer.

But the real fun is a pair of baby squirrels who showed up a week ago. We're calling the female Nova and her brother Chico (he has slonchy ears that look like Chiquita's). We have no idea who their mother is -- obviously not Notch, and we haven't seen any other female greys in quite a while. The kids wear sleek summer coats, while Notch still hasn't shed her shaggy winter fur despite the warm weather.

This pair is much bolder and more athletic than Chiquita and Ringlet were last year. They leap, they run along the fence, and they scamper headfirst down tree trunks. They don't play together much at all, the way last year's twins did, but sometimes they play by themselves. This morning, we watched in amazement as Nova played by the guava tree just outside the office door, alternating between pretend-burying of walnut shells and wild gyrations, rolls and backflips.

Best of all, I got it on video! I've set up a youtube account and uploaded a long video of her doing backflips and spins, and a shorter video of her digging and rolling.

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[ 19:32 Jun 10, 2007    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 01 Oct 2006

Frisky Fall Squirrelets

The cool, overcast fall weather is here (first rain of the season, too), and it's amazing how much difference it makes in the squirrels' behavior and appetites. They're hungry again! Just as Notch dropped from thirteen or fifteen nuts in a day last winter to one or two during summer (of course, she probably has plenty of other food sources aside from us), now that fall is here we had to make an emergency run to the nut store to satisfy the hordes.

The kids, Chiquita and Scrape (as Dave took to calling Ringlet after she got a scrape on her shoulder), are friskier in addition to being hungrier. Today Scrape spent most of the morning running up and down the guava tree, bounding in the air or doing front-flips for no reason, and starting tussles with Chiquita. When not tussling with her sibling, Chiquita spent most of the morning eating -- she's noticably bigger than Scrape and it's not hard to see why.

Ringtail drops by periodically to check on how the kids are doing in day care. Then she'll dig up a nut and move on. She never lingers. We try to feed her, but she has an amazing inability to see food even when she's standing right on top of it. She looks sleek and robust, so I guess she's getting plenty to eat somewhere else, but watching her nose around and still miss a nut right in front of her face, I sometimes wonder how she survives.

Notch usually doesn't drop by until afternoon, and seems to avoid the kids. Squirrels must have inhibitions about fighting youngsters (even those not their own), since she's never been hesitant to chase away any interloping adult squirrel. It'll be interesting to see how long the truce lasts between Notch and Ringtail's kids -- and how long the kids will stick together before going their separate ways.

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[ 15:20 Oct 01, 2006    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 21 Sep 2006

Squirrel Babies: Chiquita and Ringlet

A few days ago, I saw our neighbor squirrel, "Ringtail", struggling along the fence with a baby in her mouth, and hoped that she was moving closer to us so we'd get to see the babies when they got older.

My wishes were answered: the very next morning a new young squirrel appeared to play on the fence. Dave called "her" (we're not sure about gender yet) Chiquita.

It's easy to tell squirrel youngsters: not only are they much smaller than adults, but they're quite klutzy and cautious about the aerial feats that the adults do without hesitation. Chiquita was fairly klutzy, once falling out of the red oak onto the motorcycle shed (a drop of maybe five feet, which didn't seem to hurt her).

Then the following day, both Ringtail and Chiquita showed up ... with another baby. This one has a ringed tail like "his" odd-looking mom, but otherwise looks like an ordinary young grey squirrel. Ringtail took a few nuts then disappeared, leaving the kids at nursery school (a role which we're only too happy to fill). We think they hang out in the atlas cedar in the front yard when they leave here.

We've been greatly entertained for the last few days, watching how fast the kids learn the business of being a squirrel. On the first day, they had a lot of trouble moving head-first downward on the fence: while Notch will scamper right down then leap to the deck, Chiquita stretches as far down as she can get with her rear claws hooked over the top of the fencepost, then stays there for many minutes, evidently trying to work up the nerve to move downward. When she does move, it's carefully, step by step, and making the leap over to the deck (only about six inches) also takes time and nerve. When squirrels are fearful of something, they lash their tails wildly, like an angry cat.

A red oak tree gives much better purchase for your claws. Neither squirrelet shows any hesitation about leaping the couple of feet from the fence to the tree trunk, though sometimes Chiquita misses and has to run around the tree trunk before she gets a secure hold. And when they're both in high spirits they'll chase each other at high speed through the tree's branches.

Their antics can be pretty funny -- like when Chiquita was nerving herself to drop from the deck to the ground, but her wildly-swinging tail dislogdged a rock on the deck, which fell next to her and sent her into a panic causing her to drop off the deck.

Both of them, but especially Ringlet, love the potted fuscia I have sitting on the kayak stand. They stand on their hind legs, reach down into the pot and dig: they'll bury a nut, then immediately dig it out again. Sometimes they eat the fuscia, too. The fuscia is not looking at all healthy now, and I've written it off as a squirrel toy.

Even from one day to the next, it's easy to see their skills improve. Yesterday afternoon Ringlet even made the jump from the roof to the fence -- only a few feet, but the landing is tricky since the top of the fence is less than an inch wide. They do still stumble and fall pretty often -- Ringlet fell from the tree to the ground yesterday, making an audible thump, then lay there for a few minutes before getting up. But they're looking more graceful every day. Ringtail still brings them by in the morning and drops them off, then heads off to work (or wherever it is she goes once the kids are safely in day care).

Notch hasn't been around much, though I can't imagine she's been scared off by Ringtail and the kids. I did catch sight of her yesterday. I was sitting in the yard watching Chiquita. (The kids are fairly tolerant of our presence as long as we move slowly, but we're still trying to get them accustomed to moving about the yard and finding nuts in the right places.) She'd finally moved from the tree across the fence to the post nearest the office, and I was hoping she'd come down and take a drink of water and notice the nut I'd put there for her. After about five minutes on the fencepost, looking longingly down at the water but evidently not feeling confident enough for a head-down descent, she finally started to make a move -- then froze. I caught movement out of the corner of my eye: Notch was ambling along the deck right past my chair. While Chiquita watched, rapt and motionless, Notch went decisively to the nut hole, pulled out the whole walnut (she dislikes all pre-shelled walnuts -- we've tried bulk ones from the local fruit stand and bagged ones from Trader Joe's, but Notch and I both agree that neither taste as good as the walnuts in the shell) and marched back the way she'd come.

That was enough for Chiquita: as soon as Notch was safely out of sight, Chiquita came straight down the fencepost and onto the deck, sniffed at the shelled nut (not hungry) and had a long drink of water. I still don't know if Notch knew Chiquita was there -- squirrels don't seem to have territorial battles with youngsters, so maybe Notch was just being nice to the kid. (And she obviously wasn't hungry anyway, or she would have eaten the walnut and asked for more.)

Pictures of Ringtail and Chiquita (no Ringlet yet) here.

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[ 18:00 Sep 21, 2006    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sat, 16 Sep 2006

Ringtail's baby

One of our occasional visitors is a very odd squirrel. She's very large, with powerful hindquarters (enough so that she walks differently from most squirrels, in a sort of waddle) and a long, long tail that's ringed like a raccoon. We call her "Ringtail".

She doesn't visit often: Notch usually chases her off. And she's not very good at finding the nuts we set out for the squirrels, let alone being bold enough to come to the door.

We hadn't seen her for several weeks when today I heard a nut-crack noise out in the yard, peered out and saw Ringtail on the fence -- with a baby squirrel in her mouth. Go Ringtail!

Carrying baby squirrels usually means it's time to change dens, I believe. Grey squirrels apparently keep several dens, and change from one to another when one den gets too dirty and full of parasites.

With any luck she and her babies are moving to a more nearby den, and we'll be seeing them more often now.

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[ 12:25 Sep 16, 2006    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry | comments ]

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