“Is that a black squirrel?”
I’m amazed at how surprised people are to see a black squirrel running around our little island, but I forget how astonished I was the first time I saw a black squirrel on Grenell. Black squirrels were few and far between when I arrived back in 1975, but now they seem to outnumber the gray squirrels. I had all the usual questions back then: Were they a separate species? Did the black squirrels and grey squirrels get along or did they fight over territory?
Through the wonders of the Internet, I’ve come to learn that black squirrels and grey squirrels are the same breed. My parents grew up near Olney, IL—the Home of the White Squirrel. By comparison, seeing a white squirrel with pink eyes is truly amazing. Albinism is rare, but melanism (black coloration) is fairly common, in Eastern Canada particularly. Squirrel litters can be mixed with some black and some gray babies. Despite the Internet’s insistence that this is all normal, still our guests marvel at our black squirrels.
But we’re not limited to black or grey. On rare occasions, we’ve had a red squirrel on our little point. They are a different breed from the black and grey squirrels. They are cute, feisty and loud. Most squirrels are territorial, but red squirrels are described as “highly territorial.” One tiny red squirrel will quickly chase away the other squirrels, with their loud chirps and rattles.
Over the years, I’ve observed interesting squirrel behaviors. In late May, squirrels feed on pine buds. They tiptoe out to the end of a branch and nibble away. They are quite the acrobats and fun to watch.
By the end of June, they begin pruning our white oak trees. Two to three-foot tips of oak branches litter the ground. I’ve found two explanations for why they do this. One is teeth maintenance—they are rodents after all. They need to keep their teeth tidy and razor sharp by gnawing on stuff. The other is that squirrels chew off tree branches to make their summer drey—or nest. If that’s the case, they usually bite off more than they could use. I’m not always thrilled about cleaning up their rejects.
By late August, the new pinecones are ready for harvest and my bushy-tailed friends are busy stripping the scales from the pinecones to eat the seeds beneath. They seem to especially like the pine seeds of the Eastern White Pine and Norwegian Spruce. Pinecone bits litter the ground making walking barefoot a little more interesting.
Walking barefoot becomes impossible once the acorns are ready for harvest. Some days, it sounds as if it’s starting to rain as bits and pieces of acorns rain down on the leaves and rooftop. The squirrels’ discards are razor sharp.
Last year, I witnessed some bizarre squirrel behavior. In late June, we had a mid-morning thunderstorm. Rain came down in torrents and the wind blew hard. Shortly after the storm I was walking from one cottage to the other and I nearly stepped on a baby bird. I’m pretty sure it was a baby robin that had been blown from its nest. I felt a maternal pang that made me want to scoop it up, dry it off, keep it warm and figure out how to feed it. But, I’ve been told that it’s best not to do that.
My travel path that day took me between cottages several times and each time I took a little detour to check on the baby bird. About the fourth time I checked on it I was shocked to see the area occupied by three squirrels. Two robins were dive-bombing the squirrels and I could only guess why. When I went closer to investigate, the squirrels scattered and I was stunned to discover that the baby robin was gone.
Do squirrels eat baby birds? I checked the Internet and found a horrifying video of a squirrel munching on a baby bird. I was shocked. It took a while to get that image out of my head.
As I wrote in Goldilocks, Is That You? (June, 2013), we sometimes have squirrels break into the cottage over the winter. But one summer, we had a renegade squirrel that was brazenly breaking into cottages while we were home. It chewed right through the kitchen window screen and was sitting on the toaster oven when I came into the kitchen. I screamed. It flipped out and began bouncing off the walls in the kitchen, knocking things to the floor.
Husband Gary propped open the front door, gave me a broom and told me to make sure it didn’t go up the stairs. Gary then went to the kitchen window and banged on the chewed-through screen. The squirrel ran out of the kitchen and saw me standing on the stairs. I screamed. It freaked and ran out the front door, just as Gary had planned. He hadn’t anticipated all the screaming.
We figure this was the same squirrel that had chewed a Tom & Jerry sized doorway into the Skiff House door, then chewed through a plastic bin and gorged itself on birdseed. Most of the cottagers in our little cove had had similar experiences. Seems this bushy-tailed burglar could and would chew through anything.
Our little bandit met his Waterloo…in the loo. We have a small powder room off our back porch. We usually keep the door cracked open for ventilation purposes, so our renegade squirrel didn’t have to chew his way in. Behind the toilet we keep a box of Rid-X. Our squirrel bandit knocked over the box and had a nice Rid-X snack. It fell out of the white oak two days later dead as a doornail. All break-ins stopped. As we suspected, this had been a one-squirrel crime spree.
In mid-September last season, the squirrels on our point started acting strangely. I was reading on the front rock and looked up to see a squirrel walking down our dock. When it got to where our boat was tied to the dock, it jumped on the bow and scratched at the windshield like it was trying to get on. Then it walked down the boat gunnel and tried to get under the boat cover. Thankfully, we had extra snaps put on to help keep minks from getting on our boat. Thwarted by the boat cover, the black squirrel jumped back on the dock, scurried to the end, turned around and came back. As if that wasn’t weird enough, a grey squirrel followed the same path about 15 minutes later, running down the dock, jumping on the boat, scratching at the windshield, trying to get under the boat cover, then going to the end of the dock and coming back. Fifteen minutes later…yet another squirrel ran the same route. Two days later, I saw a squirrel scratching at the door on Miss MacDac, our cabin cruiser.
The day after that, there was a squirrel swimming in the water around our dock. I have never seen a squirrel swim. Our neighbor said he saw two squirrels swimming across the Narrows from Murray to Wellesley. When I asked another islander if he had ever seen squirrels swim, he said not until this week. What was going on? The squirrels seemed desperate to get off the island. Did they know something we didn’t? Did this mean there was a bad winter ahead? Or was it something else? Would they try to break into the cottage after we left? Or were the squirrels hell bent to get off the island?
As I’ve written about in past posts, I love watching the sky, the wind, and the water. I enjoy the birds and while I may not “enjoy” the snakes, I can appreciate their beauty. But the squirrels are the clowns of our island. Sure they raid the birdfeeders and create messes for us to clean up, but overall watching squirrels bound across the grass or chase each other around the trunk of a tree always brings a smile to my face. I’m smiling as long as they stay outside.
While I hope they haven’t taken up residence in the cottage in our absence, I also hope the squirrels haven’t escaped from the island over the winter. I’m looking forward to a bushy-tailed spring.
By Lynn E. McElfresh, Grenell Island
Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to “TI Life,” writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. This is her amazing 97th article! Yes, I mean 97! You can see all of Lynn’s articles here. (We celebrated her #80 in July, 2015!)
Editor’s note: Lynn was not the only one who saw squirrels swimming this summer. I saw two, one I had to veer away from one while going to town one day, and the second I watched coming up on our island. So if you have the answer, please let us know in a comment.