Wednesday, November 23, 2016

“Tame” wild life

Have you noticed how some wild animals are not afraid of people, especially if the people appear to have food and they don't move?  Of course, we know that we are food for mosquitoes and flies, but some birds and rodents can be almost oblivious of people.

Many of us have seen mice and squirrels come right up to picnic tables with people sitting at the table.  As soon as anybody moves, the animal scurries away, but not far.  Gulls are a screeching nuisance around many popular areas from Canal Park to Thompson Hill; they are always on the look out for something dropped or even thrown to them.  Occasionally a gull may be so bold as to grab food right out of a person's hand.  I saw this happen around the food stands in a park in Sweden.  One second a person was holding a hot dog, the next second the person had only a bun!

Just recently I was only a large object in the way of a busy ground squirrel.  I was installing a pump on a well when I heard rustling in the grass by a clump of chokecherries.  I was on one side of a garden cart and the noise was on the other side.  Pretty soon, I noticed a ground squirrel scurrying around.  It went under the cart and then out my side to my feet.  It sniffed at my boots and climbed up to check my laces.  No food there!  It then checked between my sole and the upper of my boot.  No food there!  Then it looked up at my jeans.  Nah!  Not worth climbing.

The ground squirrel then went out on the scarred ground around the newly dug well and investigated various clumps.  When I moved it raced back to the safety of the grass.

Later in the day when I came out to pump some water, the ground squirrel was in the middle of the clearing.  It dove into a hole by one of the clumps left by the back hoe.  In a few minutes, it came back out and started exploring the barren ground.  It worked its way over to the chokecherries and climbed up one of them.  From its perch at about my eye level and about three arm-lengths away it studied me.

I don't remember if it tired of watching me or if I moved, but it climbed back down.  Quite soon after that, it ventured onto the wood chips around the well and started digging not four feet from me.  It would make two or three scratches in the chips and then look up.  Two or three scratches more
and look up again.  Very quickly it was down to the dirt and continued this pattern, back legs straddled, looking just like Disney's Chip 'n' Dale.  Every so often it would stop, turn around, and with its nose, push the chips and dirt further from the hole.  Deeper and deeper it went.  When it was
about a half-body length in, it met the tunnel it had been seeking and it disappeared.  I pushed some chips over the hole.

The next time I came back the chips were out of the hole as well as more dirt.  As I didn't want anybody to trip on the hole, I put a rock on it.  This may seem that I am mean to the ground squirrel, but I'm sure that if it was in the hole it had many other exits.  If it wasn't in the hole it will use other exits as well as dig as many new exits as it wants.

However, having met this little neighbor I decided not to cut down the chokecherry clump.  It will be interesting to watch the ground squirrel as the seasons progress.  Does it have a big cache of seeds buried and won't come out once the snow is deep?  Will it need to come out to get some additional food and leave tracks in and out of all its exits?  Or will it come to some handy perch to investigate and be amused by these large creatures who make so much noise as they move about?

This may have been published as “Gopher Story” in the Northland Reader, November 1999.  The Northland Reader was renamed Reader Weekly a few years later.