Animal-speak: squirrels

Believe it or not, I used to wear a hat like this!

nihilism - xkcd

I also am a bit of a nihilist.  And I love squirrels!!!

Yet another character shamelessly based on me…

Ego-aggrandizing jokes aside, I do love watching squirrels.  They are an easy animal to see in the city, and I love nature way too much to spoil it by stomping through it. So, urban wildlife is it for me.

Perhaps because I am not naturally good at reading people’s facial expressions and body language (as is common with Aspies), I have learned the habit of really paying attentinon these – or, at least, trying to.  But, only used it with Humans and pets, not really giving other critters too much credit.

I was quite young when I realized how mutually incompatible the ‘natural’ body language of cats and dogs is.  Yet, cats and dogs who lived together (especially if they did so from an early age) are quite capable of learning each other’s language.  Well, if cats and dogs could learn another species’ language, I should certainly be able to ‘learn’ this elusive body language of humans!!!

As I have argued before, kids with Aspergers who are having trouble discovering the ‘key’ to human communication can often decode the somewhat ‘simpler’ (or, perhaps, less complex) body/expression language of animals.  …sort of like learning to crawl before one attempts the marathon of nuances in human ‘non-verbal communication’.

Back to my main point!  As the trees matured in our neighbourhood, we began to see more and more squirrels who came to our bird feeders.  One winter, we were especially touched by ‘The Twins’.  Late in the summer, they started coming with their mom.  We suspect they must have been born later in the season, because they were very tiny.  And, before the first snow came, we stopped seeing the mom…

Yet, ‘The Twins’ stuck together.  They were very, very affectionate to each other, touching and reassuring each other often.  The smaller, bolder one would climb up the birdfeeder and throw food to the other Twin!  (  The Twins stuck together until late next summer, always together.)  Well, that winter, I started putting out food specifically for the squirrels….

Several years have passed, and one of the twins has returned here with three separate litters of her own!!!  Two of these litters were after she had become blind in her right eye, too.  Now I call her ‘One-eyed Jackie’, and she is the matriarch of the ‘Bruno’ (they are much browner than most our visitors) clan of squirrels. 

Besides the ‘Brunos’, we have two other ‘clans’ that come here.  One is called ‘Fuzzy-wuzzies’, because they have incredibly fuzzy fur, especially on their ears.  These are closely related to the ‘Brunos’, and they often mix.  The third ‘clan’ that comes here are called the ‘Zekes’ – and do not get along with the other two clans at all.  Curiously enough, they get their name from the Blue Jays that come here….

Yes, last summer, we had a family of Blue Jays come regularly, too.  And one of the adults was not at all shy!  If I was late putting our their breakfast, or if I the food I put out was not her favourite (I am guessing here that it was the female – we are more discriminating…), she would sit on a branch directly in front of the door, and in a loud, incredibly annoying voice, screech ‘Zeeeeeeke!!!’ – over and over, until she woke me up and I put out the approved food.

Believe it or not, the matriarch of the ‘Zekes’ learned to immitate that call!!!

Many times did I come out, looking for the Blue Jays that were not there, only to see her sitting on ‘the branch’.  It was not until I heard her actually make that call that I realized that it was she who was making it!  Obviously, I had underestimated the squirrel’s linguistic skills.  She has since also learned to perfectly immitate the neighbour’s little dog’s bark.  I began to pay more attention.  (It would probably have been faster to just read up on it, but I had fun watching them.) 

Soon, I identified that the clicking sounds they made were not random.  If I immitated the ‘clicks’, starting at the back of the mouth and moving forward, the squirrels took it as a ‘all safe’ sign, and would come down from the tree.  Even if the dog was nearby.  (It’s ok, he does not hunt them – he is a watchdog, so he just likes to watch!  When a squirrel once fell out of the tree and landed right in front of his nose, he started crouch-jumping up like he does when he is trying to get another dog to play with him.)

a dog who likes to watch squirrels

If I reversed the order of clicks, increasing the volume, the squirrels would panick and run!  Even if there were no danger anywhere about!  Then, seeing all was safe, they would flick their tails a lot and come back down.

Over that summer, I learned about 5 different ‘sets’ of clicks, each of which would be understood by ‘my’ squirrels.  Now I had a question:  did I really learn something of ‘their’ language, or have they learned to simply interpret my behaviour?  This was something I had to test, and an opportunity soon presented itself.

My son and I went to an event in a park about 5 km away from our house – far enough, I hoped, that I would not encounter ‘my guys’.  We were sitting in our lawnchairs, listening to some music, when a squirrel started hopping from one tree to another.  I saw my chance!

I started with my ‘all safe’ set of clicks – it was the first one I learned and I was most comfortable with it.  Plus, it is rather quiet – there were people about… 

The squirrel stopped in its tracks, as if frozen, and just listened.  Encouraged, I repeated the clicks, and added a second set (I think this one means ‘food is present’).  The poor little squirrel perked up its ears, and started looking about.  Actually, it looked a bit paranoid.  I kept up the soft sets of clicks. 

Suddenly, and with great incredulity, the squirrel realized that I was the source of this jibberish!

Well, this became one confused squirrel.  It resumed its original journey to the tree, but now, very, very slowly – and never taking its eyes off of me.  It kept turning its head, side to side, as if to confirm that it really was that human that was chatting with it.  I suppose I must have had an atrocious accent – and I fervently hope I did not say anything bad about its mother!

I guess you can predict how this story ends….  The squirrel was on a direct path to the tree, but was too shocked at the stuff coming out of my mouth to pay attention to where it was going….  Yes.  The squirrel hit the tree!

Hopped straight into it!

This was the only time ever that I saw a squirrel run into a tree.  So, I shut up.  Anyhow, I had to go and help my son up – he laughed so hard, he tipped over his lawnchair!