Wednesday, December 1, 2010

duh, no wonder they're so foxy

It occurs to me, as I am reviewing this post, that I have always been this person researching animals and writing papers, dating all the way back to the report Medora and I were always writing, when we were probably 8 and 10, for fun, about cats, an animal neither of us could have as a pet, since members of our families were so deeply allergic.  We read and read and wrote and wrote, collaborating on this tome for what felt like years, organizing principle of weekend afternoons.  It amuses me to consider how I have really never fundamentally changed at all. How fun that I now have this place to keep and share all of the reports that I am constantly writing -- once a geek, always a geek.

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Thanks to my more-knowledgeable Mammalogy classmates, I now know that our squirrels -- that is, Natasha, my father's quasi-pet, and my own backyard residents -- are not Western Gray Squirrels, but Fox Squirrels, a non-native.  Which  also answers my stupid question about why our particular squirrel-friends are so red -- duh, 'cause they're not Gray Squirrels, double-duh.  None of the books I checked as reference either listed or depicted the Fox as an option, part of the usual smear campaign against those labeled "alien."  But I digress...

The largest North American tree squirrel, the fox squirrel, Scurius niger, has more adaptive range than our native gray squirrel -- will nest in more kinds of trees, live closer to people, and produce twice as many litters in a year.  Mr. Foxy, therefore, really has a leg up on Mr. Gray counterpart who is pickier about which trees he'll nest in (only oak or eucalyptus) and pickier about the company he keeps.  For more info from my favorite local animal group, WildCare, scroll down to Mammal Bio here.

Note that photo at left also lifted from Wildcare.  That's not me holding that squirrel, though you know I wish it were.  When I volunteered there briefly one Spring, in the wildlife hospital, I did get to hold a baby squirrel once.  Ridiculously cute.  Like this.

For those wondering about the niger in Scurius niger given that our Fox Squirrels are so obviously rusty-red, the animal was named in 1789 based on a black specimen in the southeastern US, where all-black fox squirrels may still be found.  Pretty!

Alsoly, the very word "squirrel" is delightful.  From wiki, "The word squirrel, first attested in 1327, comes via Anglo-Norman esquirel from the Old French escurel, the reflex of a Latin word sciurus. This Latin word was itself borrowed from Ancient Greek word σκίουρος, skiouros, which means shadow-tailed, referring to the bushy appendage possessed by many of its members."

And speaking of bushy appendage, my favorite sentence from the WildCare Mammal Bio pretty much sums up all you need to know to identify this squirrel: "The Fox Squirrel's brilliant cinnamon-black tail can be spectacular."   Make that IS spectacular, and sign me up.  They use their tails in such an expressive way, flicking them up over their backs -- the tail as a flag, warning off other squirrels.  So often it's that whip of color that catches my eye, that waving tail in the yard drawing my attention.

As part of my ongoing effort to domesticate a squirrel, create my own Natasha, I've been inspired by this piece from Tim Friend's Animal Talk: Breaking the Codes of Animal Language -- and have been trying to engage squirrels in conversation.  I can get them to stop, look at me and come closer, but we don't get past that, really.  Still it's a pretty big thrill to have their eyes on me.  Joe has also taken to leaving a trail of unsalted shelled peanuts, hoping we can work up to JP's trick of feeding Natasha walnuts through the open kitchen door.  Some day, with patience...

In the meantime, we'll just keep watching our foxy friends, enjoying their cinnamon brilliance.

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