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Encountering a young squirrel

Liz Lerner

About a month ago, just after the oak leaves had come fully out, I was walking out our drive to get the mail when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the gray form of a squirrel to my left, rustling around in last year’s leaves next to the wood pile. It was one of those peripheral recognitions, not followed up because I expected the creature to be gone instantly up a tree. But the shape persisted, did not take the expected reaction, and so I stopped and turned my gaze directly toward it.

It was about ten feet away, less than half the size of an adult gray squirrel, the first truly young squirrel I had ever encountered in the wild, if a graveled driveway can be considered “in the wild.” A young squirrel looks like a toy squirrel, like the ones we buy for our poodle Sam that he can pretend to kill. Its juvenile features are what most humans regard as “cute,” including a larger head, larger shiny black eyes, and a more rounded and compact body, lacking the boney scrawniness which, despite their long, plume-like tails, characterize all adult squirrels. Whether or not these juvenile features represent some kind of protective evolutionary strategy, I don’t know. All I can say is that for me, it “worked.” I realized that my reaction to this young squirrel was not the automatic antagonism I feel at the sight of any of the adults who for years I have battled to keep away from my bird feeder. No, what I felt was unexpected affection.

The young squirrel was sniffling out acorns buried beneath the oak leaves, buried before it was born, and seemed totally unaware of me. Very slowly I approached until I was within four feet of it, and still the squirrel showed no sign of my presence, but went sniffling, sniffling in a quick, bird-like manner, dashing a few feet this way, suddenly freezing, then dashing the other way and freezing again, occasionally finding an acorn, chewing it rapidly and then stuffing it in its cheeks, then moving on.

For a moment I entertained the thought that it might be blind, for once it dashed straight towards me, stopping only about 18” from my feet, and remaining there. But surely its keen sense of smell would have detected me, even if it couldn’t see. I wondered, could it be that young squirrels, or at least this one, are born without an inherent fear of humans? It did not seem that it would survive long with no fear of something. A more likely explanation is that squirrels who are born and raised in domesticated settings — such as suburban yards — have lost an innate fear of us. Even so, they likely retain a healthy dread of natural predators — hawks, owls, foxes and coyotes — as well as dogs. And so, just to test this squirrel’s lack of timidity, I bent down and reached out my hand. Only when my palm touched its soft, furry back did it turn in a flash and zip behind an oak trunk a few feet away. I chased after it, but there was no sign of the squirrel, either up the trunk or in the leaves into which it seemed to have disappeared.

A small enough encounter, but one that lent an air of discovery to the day.

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.