Learning from Squirrels

If there’s one quality I admire about squirrels, it’s the creature’s outrageous tenacity. Squirrels never give up, especially when food is at stake. A squirrel will go nuts if you touch their acorns. Fighting to defend their territory, squirrels bark aggressively at intruders. Squirrels will even charge at an enemy, whether it’s a bird, rabbit, or another squirrel. My backyard is alive with squirrels: eastern gray squirrels and the ones West Virginians call fairy diddles, which are little red squirrels that appear to fly when they leap from tree to tree.

brown squirrel

Photo by Pixabay on

As autumn began, there was an ongoing battle in my backyard between an eastern gray squirrel and a gray-headed woodpecker. They were at war over the seedcake suspended in a cage from a gardener’s crook in the middle of the backyard. The seedcake was made for woodpeckers, and it was successful at attracting them. A medium-sized pileated woodpecker stopped by to eat, and several smaller gray-headed woodpeckers like the one that came again and again.

One morning, the woodpecker stopped by the backyard for a snack, and the gray squirrel didn’t like it. He started barking from his tree, then he moved to the fence rail. Finally, he jumped into the yard and charged at the gardener’s crook. When the squirrel began to climb it, the woodpecker left with such outrage that his feathers rustled the air.

The squirrel climbed to the top of the crook and perched there twitching his gray and gold tail like a feather duster. The he climbed all over the seedcake cage, making it swing like crazy, and sticking his little squirrel paws in between the wire to get at the seeds in the cake. Eventually, he decided the pickings were richer on the ground. He searched the grass at the base of the crook where seeds had fallen and ate everything he found, not saving a crumb for winter.

Although squirrel watching is entertaining, I would never treat wild animals like pets, unlike a woman I knew of in Milwaukee who transformed her backyard into a squirrel amusement park. She lived in the corner house of a city block at 81st and Holt Ave. Whenever my granddaughters and I strolled around the block, we had a clear view of the woman’s unfenced backyard. She had installed a wading pool, two large hamster wheels, some wooden feeders staked with seedcakes and corn, and even a knotted rope staked between the ground and a tree branch for the squirrels to climb.

Really, it was horrifying and captivating to see so many squirrels in one place. There were twelve or twenty or thirty, who knows. They were like rats with bushy tails trashing the place, gnawing on the plastic swimming pool, chattering and barking, kind of mangy and probably carrying diseases. The next summer when I traveled to visit Milwaukee, the backyard was empty. The woman in the corner house, a blue house, had moved away and taken the squirrels with her.

Long before I started observing squirrels, I used to read about them. As a child, I enjoyed Mother West Wind stories by Thornton W. Burgess, in which Old Grandfather Frog told tales like “How Old Mr. Squirrel Became Thrifty,” or “How Mr. Flying Squirrel Almost Got Wings.” Fairy diddles in West Virginia remind me of the tiny little red squirrel in the story. My favorite children’s book about squirrels, however, was Miss Suzy.

It was the story of a little gray squirrel woman who gets chased out of her home by a gang of red squirrel vandals. She winds up living in an attic in a beautiful dollhouse that she shares with a band of brave tin soldiers. Miss Suzy is kind, friendly, and invested in domestic comfort and aesthetics. The tin soldiers loved her so much, they chased away the gang of vandal squirrels and reclaimed her original home. They loved Miss Suzy so much, they were willing to sacrifice their own pleasure for her happiness. Because my name is Suzanne, I identified with Miss Suzy, and how she won out in the long run.

Miss Suzy lived her best life and never gave up, and neither did the gray squirrel in my backyard. Every day he dropped by to attack the seedcake hanging from the gardener’s crook. He couldn’t open the cage or break up the seedcake, though he knocked a few seeds loose here and there that he later scavenged from the ground. Some days that’s the best that I can do with words. The squirrel never gave up or acknowledged that his efforts might be futile. He was a model of dedication with no guaranteed reward. If the squirrel were a person, he might be a poet or writer.

6 replies »

  1. What a lively, action-packed scene you paint here in your own back yard, Suzanne! I wouldn’t have guess how ramped-up it could get until you brought in the old woman at the corner of 81st and Holt. Hilarious fun– yet you brought it back to writing and sobered me up. It IS hard. It does require tenacity.

    (You might not be surprised to know that I have a copy of Miss Suzy. It’s one of my most treasured children’s books.)

    Thank you for the gift of squirrels on this autumn day.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When I lived up north I used to love squirrels. In Florida, not so much. There’s something chubby and fluffy-tailed about a northern squirrel that makes it so much cuter than the thin, scrawny, rat-like, thin-tailed creatures we have down here. So when I think about your story, I think about the fluffy kind and how much fun it used to be to watch them try, over and over again, and fail, over and over again. As a kid I used to think a squirrel would have been a more realistic character than Wile E. Coyote or Tom (of Tom and Jerry) because I had seen really large bird feeders actually drop on squirrels when they were pursuing birdseed–and they just managed to get up and keep on going. You helped me remember my joy watching squirrels as a kid, and given me a little hint of real fall (which Florida seems very reluctant to do nowadays)! So thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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