I may be witnessing the start of a beautiful romance. Or perhaps a territorial dispute. The former seems more likely, given the season and the behavior of the principals in this drama: my neighbors, the squirrels.
A couple of Alaskan red squirrels have staked out territories in my backyard forest on Anchorage's Hillside. Normally they keep their distance from each other, typical of their kind: rodent researchers have determined that Tamiasciurus hudsonicus is by nature a solitary creature.
But recently I noticed a change. Through the kitchen window, I watched two squirrels chase each other all over the yard. Across the snow, through the alders, up spruce trees and down. Round and round they went in looping circles, as if engaged in some sort of catch-me-if-you-can game. It finally ended when one participant scurried out of sight.
The squirrels have renewed their chase at least a couple times since that Sunday afternoon (and likely more, given the infrequency of my observations). So far it appears they have well-defined roles: One squirrel is the chaser, the other the chased.
In my anthropomorphic way - and armed with only limited data - I've decided the more aggressive squirrel intends no malice. The pursuit seems more playful than harmful. This makes sense, given another fact I've recently learned: In February or March, red squirrels temporarily abandon their loner lifestyles and pair up for breeding. What's happening out back, I'm guessing, is part of the squirrels' mating ritual.
Though I've enjoyed the squirrels' antics, my relationship with them has been strained, at best. For me, it's been a love-hate thing. The problem is that red squirrels love sunflower seeds. Once they've discovered a source of seeds, they'll do whatever it takes to get their share. That means they often raid, and wreak havoc upon, bird feeders.
Several years ago, while I was still a novice - and perhaps naive - bird feeder, I paid no heed to squirrels. I placed a tray of sunflower seeds on the second-floor deck. It took less than a week for a red squirrel to discover the cache.
I first spotted the animal - which seems to have more gray hairs than red - in a nearby spruce, staring intently at the seed tray and chattering. The chatter scared away the birds. But the seeds seemed safely out of the squirrel's reach, so I figured it would eventually give up and leave. Silly me.
One day later, I again saw the squirrel. This time it sat on the tray chewing sunflower seeds. Clapping my hands and yelling, I chased the squirrel away. It jumped from the deck railing to the spruce tree - a distance of at least three or four feet - where it landed, spread-eagled, on a branch.
Even more remarkable were its jumps from spruce tree to deck. Before leaping, the squirrel would stare intently at the railing as though gauging the distance. Then it would begin a slight rocking motion, as if preparing for liftoff (did I imagine all this?), and finally it would jump, landing safely on almost the exact same spot, each and every time. Impressive. And exasperating.
So it went for a couple of weeks. Squirrel would chase the birds, I'd chase the squirrel, and the seeds would sit uneaten. Finally, with some helpful advice and a touch of common sense, I found a solution that met the needs of all involved. First I moved the feeders to the house's top-floor deck. Then I set out a food cache for the squirrel. I included sunflower seeds and unshelled peanuts. Turns out that squirrels like peanuts even more than sunflower seeds.
A second squirrel eventually discovered my relocated bird feeders, but it wasn't nearly as disruptive. Squirrel No. 2 paid infrequent visits and showed more tolerance of the birds at my feeders. I, naturally, was more tolerant of No. 2, though I shooed it away on a few occasions.
SINCE those earliest encounters, the squirrels have been an off-and-on nuisance. Sometimes days or weeks will go by without any house calls. Other times, they're stubborn, albeit likeable, pests that refuse to be intimidated. At the same time, as a friend has observed, it seems likely that I've sent the squirrels mixed messages. It's OK for them to eat peanuts and sunflower seeds that fall to the ground. But it's not OK to eat feeder seeds. How does a squirrel figure that one out?
No wonder the squirrels freak out in my presence; they don't know what to expect. This will change, I hope, as we work out our boundaries. But for now I'm content to watch my neighbors as they playfully engage in ancient rituals, following instincts even stronger than their taste for sunflower seeds and peanuts.