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The March 2020 squirrel family

March 20, 2020

Three weeks ago our mama squirrel poked her nose into Nicky the Screech Owl’s box and saw an opportunity (see below for more about Nicky).  Nicky had vacated the box a few days before – he leaves every year about this time when the urge to be parental comes over him – and it was empty.  Mama squirrel claimed it.  She dragged in a biggish twig, and then another, and the next day she returned to rearrange them.  The day after that she moved in mouthfuls of cedar-bark straw and created a deep mattress.

I say “our mama squirrel” because we feel that we know her.  She had 4 little ones in the Hobbit owl box last August and successfully reared them – months of devotion and cleaning and feeding transforming 4 tiny pinkie finger-sized blobs into fully grown young squirrels.  She is easy to recognize; she has a split in her left ear.  She doesn’t like us or trust us, but she lives here with us anyway.

Nicky’s box is in a live oak tree that Dan has tried to isolate.  We don’t want raccoons or snakes or ringtails to reach the bird boxes so he keeps the nearby trees trimmed and ties slippery metal flashing around the trunk so no one can climb it.  We were surprised to see Mama checking out the box – we assumed she couldn’t reach it, and while we’re not actively trying to keep squirrels away, anything we do to exclude ringtails necessarily excludes squirrels as well.  Mama had managed to broach the barrier with a flying jump from a neighboring cedar tree.

Late afternoon on the day she made the cedar-bark bed she moved in 4 big pups, one by one.  They were probably about 6 weeks old.  The physical effort of carrying each pup from god-only-knows where and then having to hurl herself at the owl-box tree with the baby in her mouth, climb the final stretch, and maneuver the pup into the box through the little hole was exhausting. After every delivery she sat for 5 minutes and panted.  It was a cool day and she tucked each new arrival under the straw.  By sundown the move was completed and she settled in to nurse.

The pups were enormously amusing to watch.  Little squirrels are beautiful and adorable.  When Mama was out they bounced around in the box and squirmed and scuffled with each other, and then they fought for a nipple when she returned.  And Mama’s devotion was humbling.  The mother squirrels keep their babies clean by licking them, which means that they spend about 3 full months on a steady diet of baby squirrel excrement.  I fantasized about sending her breath mints or a toothbrush – or baby wipes.

For the record I am perfectly aware that describing Mama’s behavior as “devotion” is anthropomorphism.  So be it.  I could say that the female squirrel is stimulated by hormones to feed and clean her offspring, and by auditory and visual cues, but the same is true of us and it seems clear that emotion and reason are part of the mix, just as they are with humans.

After the family had been in the box for about a week Dan noticed that the babies had fleas, and the fleas seemed to multiply rapidly.  We could see them crawling in the short fur on the little squirrels’ faces.  Horror!  But what to do?  We give the bigger critters tiny doses of Capstar – nitempyram pills intended for dogs – when they get itchy, but that’s a relatively easy process.  We sneak a little bit of pill into a toss-able piece of food and then toss it.  Critter grabs food and eats it with big grin on face.  Hey presto, job done.  But how could we get nitempyram into baby squirrels?  How could we even get it into Mama?

This is how:
Take a tiny chip of nitempyram and grind it into a fine powder.  Then mix it into a teaspoonful of your favorite (or least favorite?) peanut butter.  Put peanut butter on little spatula.  Tie spatula to broom handle.  Sneak up to squirrel tree and smear medicated peanut butter onto branch Mama uses to get back and forth.  Return to house.  Wash hands.  Sit and watch cameras.

After a few minutes Mama’s face appeared in the window.  She could smell the peanut butter.  Soon the temptation was too much; she hopped out onto the branch and had a tentative nibble – and fell in love.  She ate every bit and then licked the branch clean.  She likes Homeplate brand, smooth not crunchy.  We tried her on almond butter but she wasn’t impressed.

By the next day the fleas had gone.  Nitempyram is transferred into breast milk, and it’s miraculous stuff, it kills fleas in minutes.

After 10 days in the box the babies were clearly dying to get out.  They were getting big and gaining in strength, and they were curious about the outside world.  With some effort, they could climb up and look out of the hole.  At first it was tough but after a day or so they mastered it and from then on there was often a little face framed in the hole.  The babies took turns observing into the yard and watching for Mama’s return when she was out.  Very soon they would be venturing out on their own.

Early this past Monday morning, about two weeks after they moved in, the babies were all killed by a ringtail.

Ringtails are beautiful but they are fearsome predators.  We lost a nest of baby squirrels to a ringtail in January last year.  Since then, I have always checked the squirrel box cameras first thing in the morning with active dread.  When everyone’s alive and well I’m flooded with relief.

There seems no way to keep the squirrels safe from ringtails.  Their survival is a matter of luck, that’s all there is to it.  A squirrel cannot fight off a ringtail.  We sometimes wonder how it is that we have any squirrels left at all.

The ringtail had come at 3:30 am.  Mama had heard it coming and fled a few minutes before.  She would live to have another family and there was nothing she could do to save this one.  I couldn’t bring myself to watch the video, but this is what happened:  The ringtail slid into the box and went to work.  Two of the babies managed to scramble up to the window in their terror and leap into the night, the other two were quickly killed.  One of the two that jumped was immediately picked up by a fox in the yard below; the other probably met the same fate but we can’t really tell.  We do know that Mama never found him or her – Mama is still with us and she’s alone.  Dan thinks it’s unlikely that a baby squirrel could survive a fall from 15 feet.

When I arrived in the kitchen that morning at about 7:45 am and looked at the cameras there were two limp, rag-doll bodies on the bottom of the box and there was no sign of Mama.  I scrolled back through the clips until I saw the ringtail and then stopped looking.  It was the tragedy I most feared – and we had slept through it.

Around 9:30 am Mama came back to the box.  We had been immobilized by horror and sadness hadn’t yet cleared it out.  She went up to the hole but didn’t look in.  Perhaps she was listening for signs of life?  She repeated this a few more times over the next hour and then, at 10:30 am, she finally stood on tip-toe and looked into the box.

All those months of effort and care, wasted.

As I write, 5 days on, Mama is at one of the feeders.  We can’t know how she feels.  We still feel awful.  However, Dan has come up with a way to protect the boxes from ringtails and we hope that she will have another litter and that they will be safe this time.

This is what he’s done:
He has totally isolated the owl-box trees by brutally cutting back their neighbors – we have seen squirrels effortlessly jump 6 feet from tree to tree and we assume that a ringtail can jump further – and he’s created little drawbridges that can drop from the nearest tree to the owl box for access.  The drawbridges will stay down unless a squirrel family moves in.  When that happens, we’ll pull up the drawbridge at night so the ringtails, which are strictly nocturnal, can’t reach the box.  First thing in the morning we’ll put it back down again (fortunately for us, squirrels are not particularly early risers).  If there are birds in the box, or if Nicky turns out to be a girl and lays eggs for us next year, the drawbridge will stay up all the time.

Mama has already tried out the drawbridge to her old box so we know she’s happy to use it, and we’ve seen other squirrels scampering along it too.

To anyone who believes that interfering with the lives of wild animals is a futile, and perhaps even immoral, activity, this will all sound utterly mad.  But we’re not pretending to be David Attenborough here.  We love our critters and we want to keep them safe.  We do understand that the ringtails need to eat but we prefer that they not eat our friends.

There was a surprising sequel to the Tragedy of the March Squirrel Family:
The night after the murders the ringtail came back to the box to finish his meal (too late, but he had no way of knowing that).  On the video we see him slide into the box, look around, and then leave again, pausing briefly on a branch.  We see a blur and the ringtail ducks and flinches.  He retreats back into the box for a minute and then climbs out again; another blur and the ringtail flinches again and then flees.  Behind the box in a nearby tree a pair of luminous eyes appears.  It’s Nicky, whom we haven’t seen in 3 weeks and don’t expect to see for months more, protecting his territory.

I like to think that Nicky did some damage to the ringtail, and I like to think that the message he was delivering was “Stay out of my box you murderer!”.

I told Mama Squirrel the story when she came for her sunflower seeds the next morning.  She almost smiled.

About Nicky the Screech Owl
Nicky the Screech Owl has spent the past 3 winters with us.  He arrives in early November and leaves in early March.  We have a camera in his box and we watch him nap and stomp around and yawn when he’s there during the day.  In the evening his head appears in the window and he sits for a while watching the yard.  Then he flits out onto the nearest branch, hyper-alert, and once he’s decided which way to fly he zooms off.  He’s like a bullet.

He’s only about the size of a Coke can but we’ve seen him bring home rats and snakes and small (smaller) birds.  He’s fearsome, and a very effective hunter.

We call Nicky “Nicky” because he has a nick in his right eyelid.  We use it to identify him when he comes back each year.  We’re not really sure he’s a he, but he’s never laid an egg or stayed in the box during the spring, so we assume he is.  We assume he disappears each year to go help his mate rear a precious clutch of little screech owlets.