Silly Squirrel Acrobatics

Some people call them ''skugs,'' and some people call them ''cons.'' But most people just call them squirrels. Where we live, which is in Britain, we have only two kinds of squirrels. We have red squirrels and gray squirrels.

The red ones are not bright red -- more of a soft rusty color. But the gray ones are definitely gray. The red ones are smaller than the grays.

Although red squirrels have lived here for as long as anyone knows, they still have not grown used to people. They are shy. They hide. They like to live in woods with pine trees in them. I have seen a red squirrel only once -- so far; I keep looking.

But gray squirrels are everywhere. Well, almost everywhere. Their numbers have been increasing for over a hundred years. They are Americans. At first, just a few were brought to England to live in zoos and country parks. But they escaped, or were released, and gradually they have spread and spread.

Gray squirrels are not shy. They do not mind what kind of trees grow in the woods where they live. They like living in towns and cities, too, as long as there are some gardens or parks with trees. And they have become so tame that they are actually cheeky.

In a large garden in the city of Edinburgh, a Mrs. A (my wife) was walking one day when she ran into a gray squirrel. Or it would be truer to say that the squirrel ran into her. Quite suddenly, it rushed toward her and then went right up her front.

NOW she says this happened because the squirrels there are known for being unafraid of humans and for eating out of your hand; so this one thought he would try to grab the food right out of her hands by doing a clever vertical takeoff.

But he had not noticed she had no food in her hands. And once he (or she -- it is hard to tell the difference) was almost at the top of this human food-provider, the human food-provider screamed. The squirrel was so surprised that it fell off and scampered away.

My theory is that the squirrel just mistook her for a short tree.

A British squirrel without a tree to climb would be like a fish without water. There is a longish word for these tree-climbing squirrels. It is ''arboreal.'' (In America, there are several kinds of squirrels that never climb trees.) Ours in Britain do run around on the ground, but when they take to the trees, they are like Olympic gymnasts.

A poet from the north of England called Ted Hughes wrote a poem for city children called ''Squirrel.'' Here are the first and second verses:

With a rocketing rip

Squirrel will zip

Up a tree-bole

as if down a hole.

He jars to a stop

With tingling ears.

He has two gears:

Freeze and top.

That is just like a squirrel. One minute he is moving so fast you can hardly see him (he can actually go 18 miles an hour), and the next minute he is so still, you might think he isn't even breathing.

I have not seen her (or him) for a while now, but we have a squirrel who visits just outside the backdoor of our house. There is a reason. That is where we hang out peanuts for the wild birds.

The squirrel does not know he is not a bird. After all, squirrels live in trees just like birds and build nests (rather messy ones) called dreys. They leap like trapeze artists from tree to tree. Even if they fall (which is rare), they can come down 30 feet without getting hurt.

SO our visiting squirrel thinks that if we put out nuts for birds, they are for squirrel-birds just as much as for bird-birds. He hangs down by his back feet on the thinnest twigs of the cherry tree and sticks his nose in the wire-mesh bird feeder.

Sometimes people do everything they can to stop squirrels from stealing their bird-nuts. But these crafty little acrobats nearly always outwit them.

I think our squirrel is female and is in a nest somewhere rearing her spring brood. Her babies are called kittens. If her nest is disturbed, she may well carry each of her young, in her mouth, to another place for safety.

I once saw a squirrel crossing a busy main road with a baby hanging out of its mouth. It streaked across, knowing just the moment to do so, and whisked up a tree on the other side. Apparently, squirrel babies get a head for heights at an early age.

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