“King of the Squirrels” 

by Renee Skudra

It is a gloriously sunny morning, with light streaming through the branches of the dogwood tree in front of my house, rendering its blossoms gleaming and hazy, like a scene out of an impressionist painter’s work. Seven steps up from the ground, on my front porch, I spy Thelonious – King of the Squirrels – sitting on his haunches, white belly exposed, left paw crossed against his chest like some rodent Napoleon standing before his adoring troops, eager as all get-out to partake of the tray of blueberries I have fixed for his morning repast with some of the wild birdseed he likes arranged around the edges. He and I have a relationship which has developed over the past year – every day, I open my front door and see him sitting there, looking me dead in the eye as if to say “where is my breakfast?” Bold and brazen, I understand he is the ringleader of a band of seemingly indistinguishable squirrels, more reticent, who wait in the further recesses of the yard hoping vehemently to score some possible leftovers. Thelonious, though, has weight, an undisputed presence and a clearly autocratic personality, and he’s not about to share – just yet. Other creatures – eastern bluebirds, mourning doves, starlings, cardinals and thrashers – have gathered for the possible chance that some of the meal might be left for them, too. Thelonious though is a Big Bad Boy, bigger than his buddies and unquestionably commands respect – deserved or undeserved.

Several of my friends think it odd that I have a connection with this particular squirrel and, more latterly, his band of cohorts who I have all named Poindexter. As an armchair naturalist and lover of all sentient beings, I cannot help but derive pleasure from the supra-normal inter-species connection that has occurred because some part of me knows it is wondrous and special. As I have gotten to know these neighbors, I have taken to reading about them in various library books. I now know that North Carolina has five species of tree squirrels – gray, red, fox, southern flying and northern flying. According to theNCWildlife.org website, the gray squirrel (i.e. Thelonious) is the most commonly observed mammal in North Carolina and was adopted as the state mammal in 1969. Squirrels are often abundant in many urban and suburban areas,  found in every county and are comfortable living near humans. The word squirrel derives from the Greek “skiouros,” meaning “shadow-tailed,” and I notice how the entire group which visits me daily flashes their gray and white delicately etched tails like gaily flying plumes making some kind of important announcement.

Thelonious and his crew benefit from our interaction by getting some rather high-grade food, always doled out generously for their consumption. But, I derive a benefit as well – enjoying their caterwauling about, jumping nimbly from tree to tree, while doing the acrobatics they are justly famous for, quarreling at times with each other in what seems to be a highly articulated vocabulary of speech – harsh squalls, warring barks, mews, purrs and teeth chattering. Their antics give me immeasurable joy because they seem to delight in the simple act of living. As I watch one squirrel hiding food in my potted plants and traversing a tall and complex birdfeeder – successfully snatching some booty – and then flying through the air, unworried as to whether he or she will make a certain landing – I think about my own life, how I have moved through so much grief this year as familiar people and places have fallen unaccountably away, several lives too lost to devastating circumstances. I need moments of happiness. I think of a statement that a writer named Andre Leon Talley made: “I just need green. I need to wake up and see grass and squirrels. I don’t want to see skyscrapers.” Agreeing, I look forward to seeing Thelonious and his underlings each day, resolute in their quest for food, whether braced against an unrelenting rain, frosty winter or oppressively hot day.

I think about the proposition that we are all God’s creatures gifted with the intelligence necessary to thrive and persevere as our particular species dictates. Squirrels, like us, have exceptional problem-solving abilities and complex communication systems. Seemingly, they have different personalities, some fierce and blustery, others shy and easily spooked. Using both sound and scent to chatter with their brethren, they share information about possible danger and food sources. Their impressive memory allows them to recover food (nuts, acorns, seeds, fruits, mushrooms, tree buds and blooms) previously stored, from several locations, hide food as winter approaches, enjoy the six-year lives they typically live and the two litters per year with the two to four  offspring which occur. Watching them live their lives adds untold happiness to my own.


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