My constant companions on early morning runs around the neighborhood are dozens of gray squirrels who are furiously digging in every front yard on my route. They mostly ignore me although yesterday I interrupted two in the midst of a date and they scurried off. I don’t do bird feeders, my garbage is encased in the city’s cranberry-colored kevlar-strong trash container and I’ve never had a squirrel get inside my house, so I don’t harbor any animosity towards these guys. In fact, I sometimes feel sorry for the ones who frequent my back yard to bury their acorns. Since part of the job description of a Yellow Lab is to chase squirrels, any time we let our dog outside, she bolts like a gray hound towards any trespassers, driving them up trees just ahead of her arrival. That’s followed by a chorus of “cluck, cluck, clucks” which I always translated to mean “that was a close one!”
An article in the science section of today’s New York Times confirms my hunch that our neighborly gray squirrels are highly intelligent, highly evolved mammals. Those squirrels scratching around the grass in my back yard, for instance, are burying and re-burying nuts and seeds, something they do up to five times with the same nut – all to safeguard their cache from someone who might have spied the first burial. Studies have shown that when the squirrel knows that he’s being watched (by another squirrel, presumably), he will dig a hole, pretend to place a nut in it, then cover it up, all the while keeping the real nut hidden in his mouth. This type of deceptive behavior has only been seen in primates and humans, never in any other kind of animal. The article also explains the significance of the squirrel’s tail. Besides providing balance, it also serves as a type of HVAC system, speeding the circulation of warm blood in the cold and wicking away heat on days like today. The tail is also used as a type of semaphore flag, providing visual signals to supplement the audible “clucks.”
I do realize that the line separating fascinating co-inhabitor of the neighborhood from pest is a thin one, so I won’t be trying to domesticate any squirrels, but I will definitely be observing these fascinating critters a bit more closely in the future.