You Dirty Rat!

I’m hungry — hungry enough to explore even unpromising prospects. I run easily up a skinny trunk without any reasonable expectation of payoff. Reaching the highest point that’s safe for me, I look around. Darn. No leaves. No berries. Well, that should teach me. I’m about to move on, but something catches my eye. I edge along a tiny branch that, by rights, shouldn’t support my weight. Swaying unsteadily, I reach out and pull off a densely packed nugget. One taste and I can hardly believe my luck. What sweet intensity! Now that I know what I’m looking for, I see another one. And another! On the alert for prowling cats, I quickly strip the tree, stuffing myself while the stuffing is good.

The thought of Year 3 has kept me warm all winter. Year 1 — the year of the transplanting — the tree had just barely hung onto its leaves. Year 2 produced one fabulous blossom — disconcertingly lovely, really, especially to an expatriate Albertan more accustomed to choosing plants for winter hardiness than for spring loveliness. Now, as the days lengthen, I can hardly wait to see what Year 3 will produce, but the spring that started a month early has stalled. So, too, have the blossoms on my prized magnolia tree stalled, discouraged by cold days, colder nights, and a totally unnecessary April dump of heavy, wet snow. And so I wait.

Finally, a day that is both sunny and warm. As I raise the bedroom blinds, something catches my eye: well, Something Not There catches my eye. My magnolia tree has gone from merely stalled to totally bereft: not a single bud remains. I don’t quite gasp, but I do swear. Blankety-blank squirrels!

Squirrels. So cute in profile as they scamper by in local parks, bushy tail raised high; so ugly viewed straight-on. Faces devoid of expression reflect brains apparently empty of anything but eating and not being eaten. They are rats with good public relations.

As converts to any religion or ideology are said to be more committed to the belief system than are lifelong adherents, maybe my squirrel phobia is accentuated because I have come to it recently. Not so long ago, squirrels were cute; I marvelled at their undulating progress through the grass, their headlong, hell-bent-for-leather progress both up and down trees. But that was then: this is now. Then, I had never lived in a city with squirrels. Now, I live in a city with too many of the little devils.

I run up a trunk, not even sure what I’m looking for. Just looking, I guess. I like to climb — it feels right, somehow — and with few trees around here, I climb while the climbing is good. I go up as far as I can and stop, swaying a little. Oh, look, a place I can jump to. I like to jump. I run along a narrow path — I can’t get my claws into it, but I keep moving and don’t fall. I wonder if there’s anything up here to eat. I dig through some dirt — Could there be nuts in there? — but all I find are little plants. I try them all carefully, but they don’t taste good. One by one, I spit them out.

On the second floor of our downtown townhouse, a movement at the window catches my eye. Good grief, it’s a squirrel on the window ledge. How did it even get up here — by scaling the brickwork? It jumps to the railing of our neighbour’s balcony and disappears from view. I head out to our balcony to see where it’s gone, and step into a scattering of marigold bedding plants and potting soil. ┬áBlankety-blank squirrels!

I’ve been burying nuts for a while. I don’t know why — it feels right, somehow. The plants that usually make it tough to get around are drier now and it’s easier to run along the ground. I hesitate as I come to the edge of the trees. Just ahead, I see a place where the soil looks different. Did I bury something here? I can’t remember. I dig through the loose soil. Something smells good, but it’s a long way down. I dig and dig, and there it is. My goodness, it’s huge! I grab it quickly with my teeth, and run.

In the living room of our new bungalow, I glance out the window in time to see a squirrel charging by with a Huge White Something in its mouth. I sigh. So long, tulip bulb: the only question is whether the little rats will get them all. Blankety-blank squirrels!

Since those early days in Ottawa, I have become wiser in the ways of squirrels. When planting bulbs, I now cover them with chicken wire or sprinkle bone meal in the hole, slowing the depredation if not entirely halting it. But I have not yet learned how to keep a rat that is built for climbing and jumping from climbing up my prized magnolia tree, or from jumping on it from the nearby fence. Nor have I figured out how to protect the serviceberries that will come along a little later in the spring, on a tree planted to attract birds, not rats, damn it!

I don’t remember many things. But I remember what tastes good, and how to find it again.

As I ponder my limited options, I ponder, too, how easy it is to support something in theory as opposed to ‘in practice’, and how attractive a virtue can be in the abstract, when I don’t have to incur the cost of actually maintaining it. An armchair proponent of biodiversity, I admit to being tempted to try to engineer a tad less diversity in my neighbourhood. What else are squirrel guns for? Alas, my restraint is more pragmatic than ethical. I have it on good authority that dispatching these territorial varmints will not solve my problem: new ones will just move in.

Blankety-blank squirrels!


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8 Responses to You Dirty Rat!

  1. Jim taylor says:

    When we lived in Toronto, our family befriended a particularly black squirrel — whom we called “Mama” for reasons that were rather obvious when she climbed overhead. She came to take peanuts from us. Then for about a year we didn’t see her; I guess raising and training her young family in the ways of squirrels demanded all her attention. About a year later, several black squirrels romped through our back yard. “I wonder if one of those is Mama?” Joan said. At that moment, one of the squirrels turned and ran toward us, and then waited for some manna to arrive from heaven. I tell you this to suggest that there may be more going on in those little brains than we humans normally assume.
    At the same time, I have to agree with your description of squirrels as “ugly face on.” Close up, even Mama had a vicious little face….

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Ah, yes, the “There was something good to eat here” memory. I’ll give them that. With respect to animals in general, I suspect we swing between two (equally spurious) extremes – attributing human thoughts and feelings to them, and assuming there’s nothing going on inside at all. If we don’t even know “what evil lurks in the hearts of men”, how can we possibly know what thoughts lurk in the brains of squirrels?

  2. Susan Wright says:

    Oh good. Someone else who thinks squirrels are just rats with fluffy tails. The previous owners of our house ran what appeared to be a soup (nut?) kitchen for the rodents. I put a stop to it and wouldn’t relent not even when a particularly bossy squirrel came up to our french door and thumped his tiny clenched fists on the glass. The cheeky little … [fill in the blankety-blank].

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Susan – I find many people living east of, oh, say, Portage & Main, know a rodent when they see one. Something about familiarity breeding contempt… A painter I know went out to the same spot in the woods every day for a year – rain, snow or shine – and became well acquainted with a squirrel who used to wait, practically arms akimbo, for the peanuts offered as rent for the space. Sounds like a good match for your Bossy Boots.

  3. Dave says:

    Yes being from Alberta I once thought those little critters were cute until I lived in Ann Arbor Michigan during the winter of 1991. While the Israelis and Iraqis were firing missiles at one another we had squirrels dive bombing our bird feeders to knock out the seed that was put there to attract the beautiful red cardinals. Now that we live close to a ravine in Edmonton each summer I trap about 10 of the pesky critters in my backyard and take them out to golf courses to be released. Leone insists that I must take them at least 20 miles before I release them. Oh well that ensures that inbreeding should be less of a problem.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Dave – Now inbreeding might actually help our cause by gradually lowering their fitness in an evolutionary sense. Of course there is always the question of what might move in if the squirrels weren’t there – maybe Something Worse.

  4. Alison Uhrbach says:

    As a native Albertan, I haven’t really had a chance to learn the loathing for squirrels that Easterners seem to be born with. My only “squirrel tale” is when we were staying on campus in Missoula, Montana one summer for a violin camp. The campus had MANY black squirrels! But one young violin player (maybe 6?) came walking along, swinging his violin case, and when he saw a squirrel standing on the step, said to it “Curtis? is that you??” Karen’s violin teacher for many years was named Curtis … and this became quite the family joke. Perhaps it’s not funny to the rest of the world, but it still makes me laugh out loud to think of it!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Alison – I think that’s funny – and wouldn’t you love to know the whole back story of that kid and “his” squirrel?

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