One winter morning a couple of years ago, biking the usual route through my neighborhood east of downtown Atlanta to my preferred coffee shop in Inman Park, I happened upon a small tragedy. There in the road, beneath the gloomy Victorian façades, bare oaks, and sagging telephone lines, two squirrels lay dead, side by side—an apparent hit and run. Double sciuricide.
Like most witnesses, you probably would have kept right on going. But I am a member of the Inman Park Squirrel Census. There are seven of us on the team. We count squirrels, make infographics, throw parties. And among our many self-imposed responsibilities: to document squirrel roadkill in the neighborhood. So, you see, the double squirrel death was a pair of dark aces. I quickly established a crime scene, positioning my bike in the road to block oncoming traffic, took out my phone, and started snapping photos.
It was a Southern Gothic diorama. The squirrels were facing each other, curled inward like opposite edges of a full moon. They looked asleep, floating, their tails blowing in the same direction. I noticed the chestnut ovals on their back feet, the tender pads on the undersides of their paws, the delicate, clipped shape of their ears. My mind filled in human fictions. Were they lovers? Was this some kind of suicide pact, or the Sciuridae Romeo and Juliet?
No. I spotted the nipples on the mother squirrel’s belly. At first glance I had been too distracted to notice the slightly smaller size of her offspring lying on the left. The child squirrel’s eyes were closed, its arms extended in her direction. Her arms, too, reached out, her front paws clasped in one last worrisome pose. Between mother and child, a wet stain the size of a half-dollar blotted the dark asphalt. Blood splattered the child squirrel’s nose, as if it had lost in a schoolyard fight. That was the only sign of trauma.
More fictions: Perhaps the mama was taking her cub out for another lesson—showing where to find food, what to avoid. Maybe the child took a wrong step into the road just as a car was coming, and she ran out there, too. Maybe they just got blindsided.
A neighbor came out of a nearby house, noticing my small fuss in the street.
“What happened?” she called, worried.
“Two squirrels. Run down by a car.”
“Oh,” she said. “Sorry to hear that, I guess?” It wasn’t a human or a pet. She went back inside.
A fellow biker rolled up and surveyed the scene—my bike, the squirrels.
“Dude,” he said, “Did you hit them?”
“No. No, a car.”
He pedaled on, calling back over his shoulder: “Sucks to be a squirrel.”
We city people have lost our connection to wild animals. Our pavement paradise, our automobile enclaves, and the pervasive technologies that sap our powers of observation have blinded us to our earthly neighbors. But nature is vibrating, even in the cities. Look in the skies. The birds are engaged in mortal combat. Coyotes and bears lurk on the outskirts. And in the matrix of tree canopy, squirrels are the cursor, the movement that gives voice to Mother’s existence here, even still, and always, long after we’re gone.
Take a moment to imagine life in a tree. Sleep outside. Wake early and step out onto your home branch, fifty feet up. Take in the polluted air, and remember you just need to get through this day alive. Don’t fall. Don’t try for a flying leap beyond your impressive abilities. Don’t step on the wrong power lines. Don’t get caught daydreaming, for crying out loud, in a spot where a dog, cat, hawk, falcon, owl, coyote, fox, raccoon, car, human, or rival squirrel can get at you. Or you’re dead. Not arrested. Not warned. Not put in timeout. You are dead.
Also, you need to find some food before your neighbor squirrel finds it. And take a little time to throw some acorns on somebody’s head, because life is short—especially if you’re a squirrel. You have about three years in an urban environment, and then your time is up. Your body would keep ticking for another ten or fifteen if given the chance, but you’re going to get killed before dying of old age, guaranteed. In human terms, you will be dead before your sixteenth birthday. Murdered and eaten, likely. Or splattered on the pavement.
I got into squirrels because of my dog. Sophie, like many before her, is obsessed with them. I used to live further east in Candler Park, in a house with the biggest backyard I’ve ever “maintained.” It butted up to the elementary school my children attended. One day, I looked out the back patio window over the deck to see young Sophie—a milk-chocolate lab mix—manically nudging something on the ground. I went out to investigate and found her picking up, and setting down again, a baby squirrel that had fallen from a high oak branch. Sophie was unsure of herself and what she had found. She would kill it out of curiosity. I took her by the collar and led her back inside, where we watched from the window as the mother squirrel descended the tree, took her child in her mouth, and carried it back up to the nest.
From that moment, and now a decade later, Sophie wakes every morning with an intention that is only interrupted by food, water, and mail delivery.What, her subconscious itches, are the squirrels up to today? Once, Sophie was riding shotgun in my Jeep and a squirrel ran across the road in front of us. She launched herself into the windshield, over and over, her whines reaching a hysterical timbre. I don’t think she means to kill squirrels. I think she just wants to put them in her mouth and see if this squirrel tastes the same as that pup she found so long ago. Through Sophie’s fixation, I began to look up into trees more and more, where I noticed all the squirrel drama. It was a taste, and then I wanted to know more.
If we’re going by who was here first, humans have no argument. Tree squirrels were around long before us. Fossils found in North America date back to the late Eocene epoch, more than 33 million years ago. Ours is the Sciurus carolinensis, the Eastern gray, ubiquitous in this half of the continent. Some are black, some are white. Most appear gray, but are actually a pattern of gray, black, white, and chestnut hair follicles. Once humans arrived, we started placing squirrels into our context (when we weren’t eating them).
Some Native Americans looked to the squirrel as a spirit-animal totem of proper planning and homemaking. Ben Franklin once gave a squirrel to the daughter of a friend living in Great Britain. The squirrel, named Mungo, later escaped, and a dog killed it. The owner wrote to Franklin in grief and he responded with a eulogy in honor of Mungo, part of which went:
Ye who blindly seek more liberty,
Whether subject, son, squirrels or daughters,
That apparent restraint may be real protection,
Yielding peace and plenty
In September of 1803, while crossing the Ohio, Captain Meriwether Lewis noted in his journals a great squirrel migration, with many squirrels swimming across the famed river. He wrote: many of these squirrils wer black, they swim very light on the water and make pretty good speed . . .
He had his dog hunt them, and the campfire that night roasted squirrel.
In the mid- and late 1800s, when cities shoved squirrels to the wilds, efforts were made to reintroduce them into urban parks. It worked so well that Central Park managers had to at times thin the squirrel ranks. Read: Sanctioned hunters went into our best-known city park with shotguns blasting.
The squirrel has long served as the American child’s introduction to killing something. Before graduating to bucks, you must practice on smaller prey. My dad used to take me hunting in southern Mississippi when I was a preteen. The only thing I managed to shoot with Granddad’s .410 was a plump fox squirrel. It was the first time I had seen one up close. Like the mother and child squirrel that I found decades later, I still remember the warmth of its body and blood, the supple coat. I was at once proud and sorrowful that this small animal gave its life for a notch in my belt. Later, my dad transformed the squirrel meat into a not-bad squirrel sauce piquant.
Everyone has something to say about squirrels, including you. In the southeastern U.S., we encounter no other undomesticated animal more often. Common is the word. This leads to various opinions about squirrels. According to my Squirrel Preferences research, our region can be divided into three general stereotypes of people. There are the Squirrel Friends, who are crazy for squirrels and everything they represent. They’re small in number, a sort of feral version of cat people—a little uncombed and rough around the edges. On the opposite side are the Squirrel Haters. Prolific in voice, they are much like fans of Southeastern Conference football. They hate squirrels the way Bulldogs hate Gators.
The vitriol against Eastern grays has even crossed the Atlantic. Many regions of Great Britain are embroiled in a desperate war to “control” the Eastern gray population. The reasoning: It’s not native to the continent and it carries the parapoxvirus, which it is immune to but which kills the beloved (and indigenous) red squirrel. In fact, the virus has decimated the red squirrel population, which by some estimates is down to just 120,000 or so, while the grays number in the millions. Among the many efforts to keep grays from taking over: they are trapped and “humanely” killed. One method forces the squirrels from traps into the corners of bags, and the trappers hammer the squirrels’ skulls.
As adamant as any American Squirrel Hater, Prince Charles nearly raises the ghost of Churchill when he talks about saving the pointy-eared, admittedly handsome redcoat cousin of the gray. “We must succeed,” he said, in an interview with the Telegraph in 2011. “We have no choice. How can we just give up, do nothing and say it is all impossible while witnessing the disappearance of one of this country’s most endearing species? It is unthinkable.”
Back in the U.S., there is, of course, the third type of squirrel person, which represents the majority of the population: Those Who Don’t Consider Eastern Grays At All. To them, the common squirrel is like Bud Light to craft beer snobs. It only registers in the conversation when you need something to look down upon. Otherwise, it is invisible.
Last fall, a Squirrel Census team member alerted me to an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution with the headline, NORTH GEORGIA SQUIRRELS MOVING EN MASSE. A migration was underway. This was an uncommon event. The last truly massive squirrel migration, stretching from Georgia to Vermont, took place in 1968. Could it be happening again? I called up Adam Hammond, a regional wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Hammond, as the state’s “bear project leader,” works to reduce conflicts between humans and black bears in Georgia’s Appalachian region. As bears feed on the same mast that squirrels do, I knew he was familiar with the Eastern gray’s movements.
Technically speaking, Hammond explained, squirrel migrations are not migrations at all. When a species migrates somewhere, they return to their original home, but when squirrels move en masse, they don’t come back the next season. It’s more like a squirrel exodus. The most accepted theory suggests that these emigrations occur after a confluence of seasonal aberrations. When a warm winter—in which there is a lower death rate for child squirrels—is followed by a summer and autumn of low mast output from nut-producing trees, the overflowing population of squirrels moves all at once in search of food.
Squirrel migrations, like the one Capt. Lewis and his dog witnessed, are the kind of natural phenomenon that challenges the imagination. Not hundreds, not thousands, not hundreds of thousands, but by some estimates hundreds of millions of squirrels, on the move at once, through the trees, over streams, across rivers and lakes. Hammond says he first caught wind of the recent squirrel migration when a fisherman in Fannin County reported seeing “ten to fifteen squirrels swimming across Lake Blue Ridge.” He started asking around and, sure enough, people were reporting squirrel roadkill, swimming squirrels, squirrels active at night.
At the same time, two states north, similar goings-on had attracted the attention of the Wildlife Center of Virginia. On one stretch of Virginia highway, Dave McRuer, the center’s director of veterinary services, counted “approximately 320 dead squirrels in 80 miles . . . roughly four dead squirrels per mile.” Similar reports filtered from North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. It wasn’t nearly as extensive as the 1968 exodus, but the squirrels were desperate. And then, like an Internet meme, it was over.
One day last winter, on a walk at dusk, I passed by my neighbors’ house and noticed a scene. Michael was in his backyard with his wife, Erica, and they were both looking at something he cupped in his gloved hands.
“What do you have there?” I asked as I approached. “A squirrel?” I was kidding. He knows about the Squirrel Census, and often asks if we are going to count possum next.
“Come take a look,” he said. He opened his hands. And there it was—a scrawny, eyes-closed male Eastern gray pup. It couldn’t have been more than a month old, and like most animal babies, it looked ridiculous and adorable. Thin tail, skinny feet, no idea what was happening to it. Completely helpless. Michael had been trimming a tree, he explained. In the downed branches he found a small, cocoon-like nest that held the child.
“And now you’re here to take care of it,” Erica offered. I do admit that I felt an immediate responsibility to the squirrel. We searched for signs of the mother or perhaps other children. The descending dark offered nothing.
I got on the phone with Miranda, a friend who had once found an injured baby squirrel and raised it to a healthy adult. It is illegal to keep squirrels as pets in Atlanta (though it is legal to kill them), but I knew Miranda had connections to an underground network of Squirrel Friends who took in young babes like the one Michael found. We devised a plan: I agreed to keep the squirrel overnight in a box filled with nesting material. The next afternoon a cold front would pass through, so we had the morning to reunite him with his mother. If we failed, we would have to consider finding other shelter and food.
That night, I slept on the couch next to the box that held the lanky kid. I woke each time he rustled in the bedding, his claws dry-scraping against the cardboard. I took him out a couple of times, holding him in a small towel. I tried to administer drops of Pedialyte through a dropper, but he would snatch away his mouth each time. I worried that my clumsy care would kill him. I was Lennie in Of Mice and Men; Denis Johnson’s Fuckhead. I slept fitfully, awoke unsettled, and fell unconscious again. I had a dream that I took in several animals, that I couldn’t stop taking in animals. In the morning, I thought of my sister, who has never met an abandoned dog or cat that she refused to love.
A text from Michael buzzed my phone. The mother squirrel was back in the tree, climbing, maybe searching. I came running over with the colorful box, but she scampered away over Michael’s roof. And so with Michael supporting the ladder, I climbed the tree. I wedged the box containing the child squirrel between branches near a nest we had failed to see in the fading light the night before. If the kid was still in the box come lunchtime, we’d move him back inside before it got too cold.
“Look over your shoulder,” Michael said, as I double-checked that the box was secure. I turned around and, on Michael’s roof, there she was, the mama, looking right at us.
It didn’t take fifteen minutes. She smelled her baby inside the box, tore out all the nesting material, and grabbed him by the neck. He wrapped himself around her head and off they went, straight into Michael’s attic.
“It occurs to me,” I said to Michael, “that maybe you’re not really into saving squirrels, you know? That you only did this because of me. Especially if the squirrels are now nesting in your attic.”
He laughed. “No, no,” he said. “The way I see it, we’re animals. And we’re here to help the other animals.” Spoken like a true Squirrel Friend.
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