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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Voices from the Wild

Ratatosk—A Red Squirrel Speaks

By Tamia Nelson

A Note to the Reader

There's something a little different on offer this week. I've written from time to time about the creatures we encounter in the woods and on the waters, but I've always been an observer: I've never really gotten into their skins. Let's see what happens when the table's turned, and a voice from the wild gets a chance to speak out.

October 16, 2001

Alright, readers, listen up! Ratatosk here. Tamia's turned over my pantry (she calls it a "canoe," if you can believe it!), tossed out the pine cones I stored in the ends, and thrown it in the water. Just like a human. No consideration for other people's feelings. Now I'll have to find a new place for all my stored food. That means a lot of extra work for me, but does she care? Hell, no!

OK, smart girl—two can play this game. You've got my pantry, but I've got your…Whaddayacallit? Powerbook. Right!…and I'm writing this week's In the Same Boat. What goes around comes around. Understand?

I don't want to confuse anybody out there, though, so I'll begin by filling you all in. I'm a red squirrel, and I live along an Adirondack River in northern New York. My neighborhood may not look like much to you—just a tangle of second-growth with a few big white pines sticking up above the cedar and birch—but take it from me, this is prime real estate for a red squirrel.

What's that? My name? You think my name sounds funny? Well, I suppose it does—to most humans, anyway. It's Norse, and it means "swift teeth." If you've ever seen one of us strip the seeds out of a pine-cone, you'll understand just how good a name it is. Kind of romantic, too, if you know what I mean. Those old Vikings may have had pretty bad table manners, but they had a mighty colorful mythology, and my namesake—the original Ratatosk—was right at the center of it, running up and down the great World Tree, Yggdrasill, carrying insults between the eagle perched on the topmost branches and the dragon gnawing at its roots. It was a great job for a red squirrel, I can tell you.

Me, I lead a quieter life. There aren't any dragons in the Adirondacks, and I give eagles plenty of space. So I have to settle for chasing gray squirrels off my trees and driving trespassers away from my food caches. It keeps me busy, sure, but I'm never too busy to churr an insult at a passing stranger.

Oh, yeah. I'm a female and I'm four summers old. I've known Tamia and Farwell for all that time, too, but I can't say we've ever really connected. Sometimes I think they're trying to understand what I'm saying, but they never quite get it. It's not their fault, I suppose. You only have to look at their nest—they call it a "cabin"—to realize that they're not completely right in the head. All that wasted space. And it's on the ground! No view to speak of. I don't know how they stand it. It's nothing like my nest, deep down inside a cavity in an old maple. I just finished redecorating, and I've got a great new bed of needles and leaves. It's cozy as can be. And convenient, too. I just take one step out of bed and I'm on my porch. Then I can see for miles across the 'Flow. The fall colors are great this year!

I gotta admit that I get curious about the humans' lifestyle, though. A couple of times a day I climb up the white pine that stands next to Tamia and Farwell's cabin and look inside through a big, transparent sheet of something that looks a lot like ice, only it doesn't ever seem to melt. Anyway, I can see right through it, and weird isn't the word for what that pair get up to. I'm afraid humans are never going to make it. I feel a little sorry for them, to be honest, hanging out there on an evolutionary dead-end, but of course I'd never tell them that. I've got my rep to think of. Can't let 'em think I going soft.

Besides, my humans make great pets. When I was younger, I used to drop pine cones on them, just passing the time, you know. Once I dropped one right into something they call a "glass of lemonade." You should have seen 'em jump!

Anyway, I keep an eye on everything that's going on in my patch. I've got OPs (that's "observations posts") on all the trees. My favorite one is on a big pine. I stand watch on a thick, horizontal branch that faces the morning sun and offers me a great view up the river. Better yet, when a cold Norther' slices down from Canada, the big tree breaks the force of the wind.

In the morning, I sit with my back against the trunk of the pine and soak up some rays. Sometimes, I admit, I get a little drowsy, but then I just grab hold of a stub on my branch, rest my nose on my hands, and catch forty winks. I also like to sit on my pantries—the things the humans call "canoes"—and watch the water. I really like passing the time of day with the mergansers and other water-birds. I hope Tamia brings my pantry back soon!

Then, when it's time for me to get on with the day's chores, I usually travel through the tree-tops. We red squirrels aren't afraid of heights, after all. I know every branch and trunk on my patch, and I've mapped out hundreds of routes from tree to tree. They're aerial highways, really. Not even winter storms can stop me from using them for long: I'm up in the trees, clearing snow off the branches, just as soon as a storm ends.

Trespassers are always a problem, though, so I post my property by leaving scent marks on each landmark. That way, every other red squirrel in the area knows that this is my place. Of course, not everyone takes the hint. Like, for example, Burgo, my Main Squeeze. He has his own territory, but he sometimes sneaks on to my patch to poach cones and fungi. Just like a man! They show a girl a good time and then they think they can drop in whenever they want, without waiting for an invitation. So whenever I catch Burgo trespassing, I give him a good tongue-lashing. And if that doesn't do the trick, I chase him right back across the boundary. He always get the message.

I don't want you think I'm a man-hater, though. Burgo and I have our moments. We've had three sets of twins over the years, and all our kids have turned out fine. After only a couple of months in the nest and a few days exploring the neighborhood, they're ready to set out on their own. I'm always a little sad to see them go, but it's nice to be a free woman again.

In any event, I'm not alone on my patch, even after the kids leave home. I've got a lot of company. Chipmunks, for example. They can be greedy little gluttons, I admit. They're always running around on the ground, filling their cheek-pouches. Cheek-pouches! I've seen chipmunks suck up dozens of maple keys. Since I can only manage a couple at a time, keeping up with these striped bandits really makes me feel harried. So I bury every last seed or nut I find. Fortunately, I've got a good memory. I can even find a cache under a snow drift—if someone else hasn't raided it, that is. Even after the chipmunks go to bed for the year, mice and voles keep sneaking around stealing whatever they can.

Still, there's usually plenty of food to go round. In addition to seeds and nuts—there's a beaked hazelnut bush on my patch—I love mushrooms, especially the fat ones with a red blush on the caps. What're they called? I can't remember, but they're delicious! I clip them off at the base of the stalk and carry them up into my trees, well out of reach of most chipmunks. (The lazy little beggars almost never climb very high!) Then I tuck the mushrooms into a narrow angle between branches or impale them on a splinter. Once the wind dries them out, they keep for a long time, and they give me a real treat late in the year.

I like fresh fruit, too. There's a crab-apple tree in Burgo's territory, and I go over to borrow an apple now and again in the autumn. It's the least he can do for me, after all. But—would you believe it?—he goes crazy whenever he sees me near "his" apple tree! Just like a man to make such a big fuss over a little thing. No dignity. As if anyone could own a tree. Men are such babies!

As if fall isn't hard enough already. Not only do I have to store food for the winter and weatherproof my nest, but I have to cope with a wardrobe makeover. My silky, reddish-brown summer coat gets thicker and my back gets really red. I even grow ear-tufts. It's worth the trouble, though. When the temperature drops to minus twenty later in the year, I just sit with my back to the wind, cover my toes with my thick belly fur, hug my paws to my chest, and watch the snow fly.

All in all, though, I cope with winter pretty well. Getting around on the ground isn't as hard as you might imagine. I just tunnel through the snow to find my food caches. In a little while I have a network of snow tunnels with entrances at the bases of all my favorite trees. These tunnels are a sort of ground-level counterpart to my aerial highways—and they take a lot less maintenance.

Just look at the sun! Is that the time? And I've got to scratch this itch. Ahhh. Got it. Pesky fleas. Time for a run through the cedar tree. Excuse me for a minute, will you?

There. Done. I like to give myself a little treat sometimes. I climb up a small cedar, rubbing myself all over with the flat sprays of needles. Then I dive down through the springy branches, catching myself just before I hit the ground. After a couple of circuits, I'm flea-free. It's good exercise, too! A girl has to stay in shape.

Not that I don't get plenty of other exercise. You may have noticed that I can climb down trees as well as I climb up them. That's because I can rotate my feet back to front. So I can get a grip on the tree trunk as easily with my rear feet as with my front paws. "Get a grip!" That's an old saying among red squirrels. It's good advice, too.

So keep your eyes peeled next time that you see one of my people in a tree. We like to hang from our rear feet, stretch out, and make swimming motions in the air with out front paws. It's great for the back. Too bad you humans can't do it. No wonder Tamia's back gives her so much trouble.

Winter. I don't look forward to it. It seems to last forever up here in northern New York. Though I make an effort to keep busy, it's easy to get cabin fever in the short days of January. So whenever I get the chance, I go for a chase through the tallest trees. You've got to be careful, though. Small patches of black ice can develop even on the best-maintained branches. Two winters ago I fell forty feet, but luck was with me that day. The snow was deep and soft, and I was only stunned. Any landing you can walk away from….

Not every red squirrel who falls from a tree is so fortunate, though. A lot of us suffer concussions or break bones. I've heard Tamia talking about humans who care for injured squirrels and other wild animals. "Wildlife rehabilitators," I think she calls them. I hope there's one nearby if I'm ever hurt.

All humans aren't so understanding, of course. Campers and cottage-owners sometimes complain about us red squirrels. They say we're pests and thieves. Well, OK. Maybe some of us are, some of the time. Still, a girl's got to live, right? A little understanding goes a long way. That's one of the reasons I'm writing this. We don't get to tell our side of the story too often. Just look at what they say about us in the field guides. To some of those guys, we squirrels are nothing more than links in the food chain. Really! Thank you very much. I've never heard such nonsense!

Food chain, indeed. Go walking in grizzly country and see how you like it. All that fuss about…got it!…charismatic megafauna. What about us charismatic mesofauna? Don't we deserve a little respect? We're all around you, after all. But how many red squirrels do you see on t-shirts? Right! None, that's how many. Oh, no. It's wolves this, and wolves that. Or eagles. Or whales. It makes me want to churr….

There oughta be a law. Better yet, though, we're writing our own field guides, and under the section headed "Economic Importance of Human Beings," they're gonna say: "An important source of high-quality protein for large carnivores. Provide blood-meals essential to the successful reproduction of a variety of species of biting flies." So there.

Carnivores. They're enough to make a girl stay in bed. Weasels, in particular, especially a particularly nasty type called the pine marten. When I was only a year old, I was ambushed by one of these vicious little so-and-sos. Not a pine marten, however. Another weasel. Human trappers have made martens pretty scarce in the northern Adirondacks. I don't like traps, myself. It's almost enough to make me feel sorry for martens. Almost, but not quite. No, it was an ermine. It was late in the winter, but the ermine was still all white, with only a bit of black on the tip of his tail. Just about invisible on snow. If we hadn't been in the middle of a thaw then, I'd have been a goner.

I noticed the weasel only after he saw me. I was at one of my seed caches, and I wasn't paying much attention to anything but food. We'd had an ice-storm in January, and most of my stores were frozen over. By March, I was thin and slow and a lot less alert than I should have been.

In any case, the ermine came at me so fast I couldn't believe it. I ran up the big pine tree near Tamia's cabin, spiraling round and round the trunk as I climbed. The ermine followed me. He was surprisingly good at climbing. Too good. He got close enough to nip off the end of my tail. I tried every trick I'd learned, but I still couldn't shake him. For a moment I wished I was a flying squirrel!

Just as I thought I was done for, though, Tamia stepped outside. I was used to seeing her moving around, but the ermine wasn't, and he lost his concentration. That gave me the chance I needed to make my escape. But it was a close-run thing!

Luckily, my days usually aren't so exciting. Mostly, life is good. A sun-warmed branch. A nice piece of dried mushroom, or maybe a few borrowed sunflower seeds (the chickadees don't seem to mind). It doesn't get any better than this. Hey! Tamia's putting my pantry back where it belongs. At last! I gotta go. Be seein' you! Churr….

Happy Squirrel

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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