Important features of squirrel husbandry

Their babies smell like freshly opened hickory nuts

I watched a Beechey carry a snail in his mouth to a spot by the salvia, where he dug a hole with his front paws, dropped the snail in, and covered it up.
  • I watched a Beechey carry a snail in his mouth to a spot by the salvia, where he dug a hole with his front paws, dropped the snail in, and covered it up.
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

When Eve brought the apple to her mouth, the squirrel pulled his tail across his eyes to shield them from sin, and God, seeing his virtue, gave him a flaring tail. The Greeks formed his name from the words for “shade" and “tail,” calling him skiouros, or “he who sits in the shadow of his tail." From there the formal Latin became scurius, the vulgar Latin scurellus, and the old French esquirel.

The Beechey, or California ground squirrel, Spermophilus beecheyi, seems not to have been in Paradise. Compared to the feather boa of the Eastern gray, the Beechey plume is a brown centipede of fur, good for a pillow but not much shade. He was named during the time of James Fenimore Cooper, who published The Last of the Mohicans in 1826, the same year that Frederick William Beechey explored Northern California as captain of a ship called Blossom.

The Beechey and the squirrel who sits in the shadow of his tail are, like all rodents, descended from extinct mammals called multituberculata, who evolved in the early Jurassic Period and lived for 100 million years. The Beechey and his kin would have to survive until the year 50 million to do as well.

Beechey squirrels are the most human beasts in the yard, for good or evil. Alone, they sit on their hind legs in the shadows of stones and stare out like waiting shopkeepers. In pairs, they rub their faces with white flexible fingers, race around, and kiss each other. One hot summer day a squirrel-kid fell asleep on the grass, leaning on his tail and bobbing until his eyes closed and he fell over in a furry little heap. The adults don’t nap in the open, but they rub themselves in the dirt until the ground is hollow, then lie flat on their stomachs with limbs spread in the Malibu-suntan position. They are neatly if not extravagantly furred: a brown face, a white collar, and two white lines that flow down from their shoulders like the hem of a speckled cape. Fifty yards from the house, they live in burrows like boroughs — some in the Agave district, others in Orangewood, Eucalyptus, or Cut Avocado, and they flee screaming to their tunnels whenever people or canines go outside.

The scream of the Beechey is a shrill, piping sound I first took for a bird, and when he issues an alarm, he repeats it over and over again in a pulse that might be used by security firms to unlock Subarus. I’ve read that the Uinta ground squirrel emits six different calls, two of which signal the approach of a predator a “chirp” means air raid and a “churr" means predators on foot. It isn’t clear why the squirrels bother to use different signals, since they run like mad either way, but Beecheys use the airraid chirp when I take my tall self to the mailbox.

I long to be Alice and follow them down the hole. It must be dark down there, and cool — cluttered like their yards with orange peels, macadamia hulls, and avocado pits of great age, since Beecheys can use the same burrow for generations. Perhaps it smells, like the air, of dried pits, lizards, stones, and oleander. I’ve seen a snake go down a squirrel hole, foot after muscular foot of him, so perhaps there are molted skins down there as well — hollow scraps that remind the mothers how fat the snake used to be, and how fat he must be now.

According to studies in California, the Beechey burrow tends to be about 34 feet long. The tunnels are 4 to 5 inches in diameter and usually run at a depth of 36 inches but a burrow in Fresno County was excavated at 28 feet below the surface. The record for Most Extravagant House, however, is held by a colony in San Luis Obispo County, where six females and five males lived in tunnels extending 741 feet in length, with 33 exits instead of the usual 12.

The Beecheys on our hill clean the flesh out of oranges and leave the rinds like dirty cups at the edge of every hole, the remains of a banquet they’re sleeping off. Neatness, it would seem, is not their passion. Although researchers have found that squirrels dig latrines, they’re not so particular about graves. Peter Hanny writes that “some species are not averse to sharing the burrow with the remains of a deceased compatriot.”

The male squirrel, like certain high school boys, is ready for mating before the female. He courts her anyway, winter comes, and she accepts him when the days are short. She carries the resulting triplets, quadruplets, or quintuplets (the record stands at 15) for six and a half weeks. The inch-long babies are hairless and blind and whiskered. But the mother nurses and licks them, and in the first week they double in weight. During the second week, they grow hair on their backs. At three, their lower incisors appear, and at four, their upper. Their eyes open at five weeks. Molars push through the gums at six, and though the young can take solid food, they’re nursed for another six weeks. At this point they smell, says one scientist, like freshly opened hickory nuts.

The young who survive gopher snakes, dogs, and weasels stay with their mothers at least three months and up to seven. Like humans, they can have their own young when they’re not fully mature, and Beechey mothers can have two litters per year if food is plentiful. They’re said to increase their reproductive rates in response to squirrel-killing.

In June the Beecheys began to flow like water across our lane and make themselves at home between the white pickets of the front porch, on the cool grass, and in the shady patch of dirt between my window and the purple-flowered buddleia. They grazed beside my pet rabbit until she puffed herself up like a dowager queen and ran them off. They came back and chewed the unopened buds of fortnight lilies. They ate saffron poppies, hydrangea leaves, and salvias the color of blood oranges. By June the Beecheys and their dark-eyed young promised to become an Egyptian plague, and my husband, who carries spiders out of the house instead of flushing them, suggested poison.

For months we’d assumed the squirrels were strict vegetarians, dining on petals and grass. It was the reason they would have to go. But then one morning a Beechcy dug around in the poppies, sat on his haunches, and began to eat what looked like a hamburger. I lifted my binoculars, focused, and made a triumphant, repulsive discovery. He was eating a live snail.

He was tidy about it, really, as far as mollusk-eating permits. He held the shell in both hands and sat like a quarterback at an all-you-can-eat buffet. When he succeeded, as he munched, in pulling the snail out, the shell fell away whole, which may have given him the little thrill that comes of pulling a whole crab leg out of its shell. I’m a carnivore myself, but I couldn’t eat so much as a fruit for two hours. I went outside to check for evidence that one garden plague was indeed consuming the other, and I found plenty. That day’s walk and every walk thereafter led past little heaps of shells. The squirrels are either dormant or dead now, killed by the grove-keepers on either side of us, but the shells sit open-mouthed and rattling in the wind.

Back in June, when the squirrels were still eating, I should have known what I would see next. The squirrel is best known for squirreling food away. African ground squirrels pick up seeds, search for a good hiding place, dig a hole, press the seeds in, push back the earth, and then camouflage the spot with a stone or dead leaf. Eugene Kinkead, writing of the Eastern gray squirrel, says, “Burial of nuts, as everybody knows, is an important feature of squirrel husbandry.” Squirrels can smell the location of buried food, he says, and dig it up again.

This is laudable when it comes to seeds, fruits, roots, and bulbs. As a young Mormon I was encouraged to lay in a two-year emergency food supply that in my case never grew beyond a two weeks’ supply of ice cream, so I’m moved by the long list of seeds a squirrel buries: red brome, barley, oats, tumbleweed, miner’s lettuce, shepherd’s purse, wild radish, and poor man’s weatherglass. How logical, then, that a snail — a cross between nut and animal — should be buried like an acorn in its shell.

The snail he buries is one of 35,000 different gastropods whose name comes from the Greek words for belly and foot. The common brown snail Helix aspersa was imported from France and is a functioning hermaphrodite who can lay 80 eggs up to six times a year. Besides male and female sex organs, each of those 480 descendants has a kidney, a liver, intestines, and a two-chambered heart. If sprinkled with salt, a snail will emit too much liquid and dry up. If presented with a saucer of stale beer, a snail will drown itself. If a squirrel doesn’t bury it alive or eat it, Helix aspersa may be killed by its gastropod cousin Rumina decollate or the sicklemouthed larvae of the lightning bug. Come winter, when the snails attach themselves like bumpy tile to garden pots and orange trees, I will kill them with a shovel.

In June I watched a Beechey carry a snail in his mouth to a spot by the salvia, where he dug a hole with his front paws, dropped the snail in, and covered it up. He made a great show of patting the earth down, smoothing it like a rumpled bed. But the soil was wet from watering, and I found the spot. I dug up the snail and watched him unfurl himself. Slowly, very slowly, he stretched out his dirt-encrusted neck, raised his periscope eyes, and staggered away on his belly-foot.

The belly-foot, though ingenious, is a poor means of escape. An hour later, I saw a squirrel eating a snail in that part of the garden, perhaps the same snail who thought, in some dim way, that its life had been given back. But Helix aspersa has its own means of redeeming the dead and is spawning even now in the grove of daisies, where snails as small as pearls are stretching themselves against the stalks and feeling their thin shells rise.

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