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Argh! SQUIRRELS!

Squirrel damage...

Squirrel damage…

Since December, the garden has been a desolate wasteland. Great sheets of scabrous ice and unwholesome snow have covered everything. Above the frozen crust, only the holly and the yew showed any life. Finally, here in mid-March, Brooklyn has started to come alive again. Little green shoots appeared—crocuses and the tender tips of tulips—only to be ripped off and thrown down by marauding squirrels. How I detest these hardy arboreal rodents!

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I hate the squirrels so much! But I like them and admire them too. The ones in the back yard are eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis). Their taxonomical name means “shadow tail” for they have distinctive furry tails which look gray at a distance but are actually many subtle woodland colors. If the squirrels don’t want to be seen, they can wrap themselves in their tails and vanish like chameleons—but usually they wish to be observed as they brazenly saunter around the garden committing enormities. Brooklyn needs some more hawks to thin their ranks a bit.

Speaking of thinning, I guess I could feed the squirrels. They are understandably hungry as they use up their final winter resources and start families. It would mean that I spent a bunch of money on seeds, but maybe the distracted squirrels would stop tearing up my spring flowers. Yet, if I do that, the squirrel population will burgeon. These accursed squirrels gnawed a hole in the side of the house and began living in the crawl-space above the bathroom, so doing anything which creates more of them is fraught with peril. Last year, the landlady sent trappers to capture the squirrels in the house (the battle of wits between the squirrels and the wacky band of Trinidadian misfits she found was really something).

What is he eating? Is that insulation foam?

What is he eating? Is that insulation foam?

Gray squirrels are not unlike the tree-dwelling rodent-type creatures from which primates evolved (a group of extinct animals which I need to write about at some point).  Although they seem frenetic and crazed, the squirrels are actually surprisingly clever. There is an intense methodology to how they bury things for winter (indeed, they are saving—something I certainly don’t have the discipline to do). Their loquaciously chatter and chirps are clearly a complex system of communication. Maybe I shouldn’t begrudge them some ruined crocuses and tulips, but, as I write this, I notice that it’s snowing again. Those prospective flowers were all that was giving me hope for spring…and now even those jaunty little bud tips are gone.

A European Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)

A European Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)

Because of their tendency to tear up my tulips, eat my Christmas lights, and bore into the side of my dwelling, squirrels are not my favorite animal. But the indignities which I bear from these bushy-tailed arboreal rodents are nothing compared to the animosity roused by Ratatoskr, the squirrel of Norse mythology who dwells on the trunk of Yggdrasil, the universe tree (which is described in this previous post).

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At the apex of Yggdrasil is perched the mighty eagle Hræsvelgr who causes the winds to blow through the world by flapping his wings. At the base of the tree, curled around the roots is Níðhöggr, the underworld dragon who eats away at the roots of Yggdrasil and thus undermines all of creation. Compared to giant eagles and chthonic dragons, squirrels are low-status monsters, yet Ratatoskr managed to stir up plenty of trouble. He would run up and down the tree between the dragon and the eagle telling each creature gossip about the other. At first, Ratatoskr made up slanders to tell the two monsters, but, in no time, the two haughty beings really were cursing each other (which made Ratatoskr even happier). To quote IO9, “Ratatosk has no grand scheme, and the eagle and the dragon aren’t prophesied to fight or do anything. Ratatosk is spending his free time perpetuating an animosity for no reason whatsoever.” As though this were not bad enough, the irrepressible squirrel is also reputed to gnaw at the great tree itself.

Ratatoskr on Yggdrasil (source unknown)

Ratatoskr on Yggdrasil (Art by Daniel Lieske http://daniellieske.com )

The Vikings regarded gossip as a low and churlish form of skullduggery reserved for thralls, slaves, churls and other such hoi-polloi. It seems appropriate that the embodiment of gossip and slander in their mythology was an annoying chattering squirrel.

During the Mesozoic, the age of dinosaurs, mammals were widespread, but they kept a low profile so as to avoid the baleful attention of the great reptiles.   A fossil of one of these furtive early mammals was discovered last November (2011) in Argentina.  The creature was christened as Cronopio dentiacutus, and not only does the animal’s partial skull give us a window into mammalian form in the late Cretaceous it also provides a special treat for regular readers of Ferrebeekeeper, for like the Smilodon, the walrus, and the Odobenocetops, Cronopio has distinctly pronounced saber teeth (despite being a small scurrying squirrel-like creature).

A model of the Cronopio dentiacutus–which was only 10 to 15 cm (4 to 6 inches) long.

Cronopio dentiacutus was probably actually more shrew-like than squirrel-like and used its saber teeth for hunting insects.  Based on its large eye sockets, Cronopio most likely hunted its prey at night (when it could also more easily escape the attention of the dinosaurs and other larger predators.

Julio Cortázar, Argentine Surrealist author

Cronopio dentiacutus takes its species name from a Greek phrase meaning sharp teeth, but the origin of its genus name is rather more literary.  The Argentine surrealist writer Julio Cortázar wrote several books about abstracted categories of fictional entities and the Cronopio was the idealistic but disorganized type of being (as opposed to rigid, highly-organized “famas” and indolent, dull “esperanzas”).  It is unclear what creative/idealistic features of this insectivorous early mammal struck the fancy of the discovering paleontologist to provoke such a name, but it is nice to see scientists pay Argentine belles-lettres such an acknowledgement.

Since a blustery cold front seems to have put spring on hold, I thought I would post a gardening update.  Although my stony north-facing garden runs a month behind everyone else’s, my tulips finally came up!  I have a large bed of delicate pink tulips (appropriately named “Don Quichotte”) along with a smattering of maroon-black “Queen of the Night” tulips around my rose.  It’s sad to think that my garden is probably as lovely on this cold windy workday as it will ever be again.

The tulips survived winter’s chill and put roots in the grim waste only to narrowly escape an unexpected adversary.  Just as they were about to bloom, a creature crept into my yard and gnawed the heads off my flowers!  What could it be?  Memories of raccoons and slinking possums ran through my head along with more esoteric terrors (wolverines? bears? giant sloths? harpies?) however, internet research revealed the culprit to be a humble squirrel.  After spraying a variety of vile “critter ridders” on my garden with no effect, I put up some jaunty mylar balloons.  Their shining, lurching presence has driven the culprit off.

Ignore the camera angle and pretend the heart balloon represents my appreciation for my readers.

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