Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Squirrels: State of the Union

So far the squirrels are doing just fine! I was thinking about how much better off they seem to be this winter than in previous years, when many suffered. We had an unusually abundant nut harvest this year, and they were fattened up and prepared for winter combat early on.

I did see one black one with a bleeding front paw yesterday, but it didn't look too bad. Other years there have been so many with wounds much worse than that. I recall one black squirrel that had a horrible open wound on his leg that lasted all winter. It just would not heal. I always wondered at how much he suffered. When we first saw these wounds we wondered if they were from... hawks? dogs? rats? We finally decided that they were fighting among themselves. I think that as long as they have food security they don't fight with each other.

Also, apart from our "White Christmas", the winter has been relatively mild so far. In fact recently we've been experiencing a "January thaw" with temperatures in the 40's. The squirrels have been responding to the clement weather with frisky frolicking. It seems to be converging with mating season!
It's a wonder to watch their agile gymnastics as they chase and evade each other in the trees with much squealing, devastation and delight!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Homeland Security, squirrel style...the system works!

(unlike another system we've been hearing about recently.)

I've voiced my concerns here about the hawks before. They come around the park almost daily during the wintertime. Is it because they are hungrier, need fuel for warmth, or because the bare trees reveal their quarry so easily? I was bemoaning the fact that wide open nests leave squirrels vulnerable, and was making the case for squirrel "houses" which would provide roofs to protect them from rain, snow and wind, and from the ever-present predators. Houses of this type were constructed some time ago in Tompkins Square Park, and are working well over there. Why not squirrel houses at Stuytown and Peter Cooper Village? We take care of our pets by making sure they have a cozy home with a roof over their heads-- why not do the same for our wonderful squirrels?

That said, today I had an interesting lesson on how squirrels are not completely defenseless, but actually have a rather sophisticated "homeland defense" system that includes a "terrorist watch list", an "early warning system" and even a few "combat troops". The system stops short of having a "no fly list", but that's a tough one to impose.

As I was feeding a rather large group of squirrels, I noticed that a young couple was observing them with great interest, with both their video cameras rolling. They told me that they'd never seen squirrels like this before. "We're French" they explained. Ah yes, that explained it!

"Early Warning System"

No sooner had the couple left than the squirrels in a nearby tree started their crying. I looked up and sure enough, there loomed a hawk, large and ominous, in a tree just behind where the couple had been. I was filled with dread, but at the same time was sorry that they had missed the excitement of seeing a hawk! They're French, after all.

"Terrorist Watch List"
The squirrels always somehow sense when a hawk is nearby. How do they do it? Their eyesight is not the best, as anyone who has ever tossed them a peanut that is not in their direct path knows. Squirrels do sense motion, but then a hawk tends to sit motionless until it's ready to strike. And the dogs, pigeons and people that are always moving about do not cause the same reaction. Only hawks have been placed on the squirrels' "terrorist watch list", which causes their "early warning system" to kick in.

Although the hawk will sit quietly and patiently, there's a tension in the air, and you expect movement at any moment. I watched as the hawk suddenly spread its huge wings and swiftly swooped down across the green where a gray squirrel was foraging. Hawks do have good eyesight by the way. The squirrel scurried into the safety of a nearby hedge, and the hawk landed on a tree above the hedge. Then I witnessed a most amazing scene.

"Combat Troops"
A squirrel (it may have been the same one that hid in the hedge) ran up the tree and headed straight for the hawk, making menacing sounds. I thought to myself: uh oh, this is gonna get bloody! The squirrel pitched itself at the hawk kamikaze-style, and the hawk at that point decided that it might be a good idea to take off. And off it went, flying straight out of the park! I looked around for the French couple, sorry that they were not there to capture the action on their cameras.

Once again I had seen courage being demonstrated by a squirrel. What a hero! And so we see how squirrels can actually protect themselves through their natural defense system. And if squirrels can do it, why can't the U.S. Government? But that's another story...