Friday, January 6, 2017

Bitter cold makes me squirrelly #phenology

Sunlight from the southeast casts shadows to the northwest and bright snow-streaks through which a couple of red squirrels run. Chickadees drift down through the leafless trees to the wire mesh feeder. They'll have 8 hours and 54 minutes of daylight to do that in today. We had about 8 hours and 43 minutes back on the 2016 Winter solstice. That's a net gain of 10 or 11 minutes. (Do I seem desperate and grasping at straws? Cabin fever is setting in because, even when I do go out, I don't wanna be out!)

red squirrel at Winter feeder
red squirrel at Winter feeder
Photo by J. Harrington

After watching the dogs and their paws this week during our walks in this cold spell, I tried to find a description of adaptations the red squirrels might have evolved to scamper about as much as I see them these bitter days. No luck. Bernd Heinrich, in Winter World, writes that:
"Red squirrels are emphatically active any month of winter. They appear not to hibernate at all. However, during periods of extreme cold, the woods are silent, and they hole up for days at a time in their subterranean burrows under a stump or tree roots."
The quotation, in combination with the number of locally active red squirrels this week, would seem to call into question the definition of "extreme cold," at least as used by red squirrels. Wild Mammals of New England, Alfred J. Godin, has an extensive description of red squirrels that hints extreme cold may be around -25℉. It also notes that breeding season starts in a week or so and peaks from next month into Spring. That helps explain the lack of hibernation, I suppose.

red squirrel on deck teasing the dog
red squirrel on deck teasing the dog
Photo by J. Harrington

Active squirrels throughout the year are a continuing source of amusement for me and befuddlement for Franco, our border collie cross, who hasn't yet caught onto the tree-climbing routine. He charges out to herd the squirrels who, by the time he's turned the corner, have scampered for the heights. The dog looks around, sniffs, looks up and barks. Perhaps he feels that he's done his job of keeping the area safe from squirrels and tigers.

Finally, for those who honor it, enjoy this Feast of the Epiphany!

My Dog Practices Geometry


By Cathryn Essinger


I do not understand the poets who tell me
that I should not personify. Every morning
the willow auditions for a new role

outside my bedroom window—today she is
Clytemnestra; yesterday a Southern Belle,
lost in her own melodrama, sinking on her skirts.

Nor do I like the mathematicians who tell me
I cannot say, "The zinnias are counting on their
fingers," or "The dog is practicing her geometry,"

even though every day I watch her using
the yard's big maple as the apex of a triangle
from which she bisects the circumference

of the lawn until she finds the place where
the rabbit has escaped, or the squirrel upped
the ante by climbing into a new Euclidian plane.

She stumbles across the lawn, eyes pulling
her feet along, gaze fixed on a rodent working
the maze of the oak as if it were his own invention,

her feet tangling in the roots of trees, and tripping,
yes, even over themselves, until I go out to assist,
by pointing at the squirrel, and repeating, "There!

There!" But instead of following my outstretched
arm to the crown of the tree, where the animal is
now lounging under a canopy of leaves,

catching its breath, charting its next escape,
she looks to my mouth, eager to read my lips,
confident that I—who can bring her home

from across the field with a word, who
can speak for the willow and the zinnia—
can surely charm a squirrel down from a tree.


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