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Walking through the early October woods one day, I came upon a place

where the ground was thickly strewn with very large unopened chestnut

burrs. On examination I found that every burr had been cut square off

with about an inch of the stem adhering, and not one had been left on

the tree. It was not accident, then, but design. Whose design? A

squirrel's. The fruit was the finest I had ever seen in the woods, and

some wi
e squirrel had marked it for his own. The burrs were ripe, and

had just begun to divide. The squirrel that had taken all this pains had

evidently reasoned with himself thus: "Now, these are extremely fine

chestnuts, and I want them; if I wait till the burrs open on the tree,

the crows and jays will be sure to carry off a great many of the nuts

before they fall; then, after the wind has rattled out what remain,

there are the mice, the chipmunks, the red squirrels, the raccoons, the

grouse, to say nothing of the boys and the pigs, to come in for their

share; so I will forestall events a little: I will cut off the burrs

when they have matured, and a few days of this dry October weather will

cause every one of them to open on the ground; I shall be on hand in the

nick of time to gather up my nuts." The squirrel, of course, had to take

the chances of a prowler like myself coming along, but he had fairly

stolen a march on his neighbors. As I proceeded to collect and open the

burrs, I was half prepared to hear an audible protest from the trees

about, for I constantly fancied myself watched by shy but jealous eyes.

It is an interesting inquiry how the squirrel knew the burrs would open

if left to lie on the ground a few days. Perhaps he did not know, but

thought the experiment worth trying.

One reason, doubtless, why squirrels are so bold and reckless in leaping

through the trees is that, if they miss their hold and fall, they

sustain no injury. Every species of tree-squirrel seems to be capable of

a sort of rudimentary flying,--at least of making itself into a

parachute, so as to ease or break a fall or a leap from a great height.

The so-called flying squirrel does this the most perfectly. It opens

its furry vestments, leaps into the air, and sails down the steep

incline from the top of one tree to the foot of the next as lightly as a

bird. But other squirrels know the same trick, only their coat-skirts

are not so broad. One day my dog treed a red squirrel in a tall hickory

that stood in a meadow on the side of a steep hill. To see what the

squirrel would do when closely pressed, I climbed the tree. As I drew

near he took refuge in the topmost branch, and then, as I came on, he

boldly leaped into the air, spread himself out upon it, and, with a

quick, tremulous motion of his tail and legs, descended quite slowly and

landed upon the ground thirty feet below me, apparently none the worse

for the leap, for he ran with great speed and eluding the dog took

refuge in another tree.

A recent American traveler in Mexico gives a still more striking

instance of this power of squirrels partially to neutralize the force of

gravity when leaping or falling through the air. Some boys had caught a

Mexican black squirrel, nearly as large as a cat. It had escaped from

them once, and, when pursued, had taken a leap of sixty feet, from the

top of a pine-tree down upon the roof of a house, without injury. This

feat had led the grandmother of one of the boys to declare that the

squirrel was bewitched, and the boys proposed to put the matter to

further test by throwing the squirrel down a precipice six hundred feet

high. Our traveler interfered, to see that the squirrel had fair play.

The prisoner was conveyed in a pillow-slip to the edge of the cliff, and

the slip opened, so that he might have his choice, whether to remain a

captive or to take the leap. He looked down the awful abyss, and then

back and sidewise,--his eyes glistening, his form crouching. Seeing no

escape in any other direction, "he took a flying leap into space, and

fluttered rather than fell into the abyss below. His legs began to work

like those of a swimming poodle-dog, but quicker and quicker, while his

tail, slightly elevated, spread out like a feather fan. A rabbit of the

same weight would have made the trip in about twelve seconds; the

squirrel protracted it for more than half a minute," and "landed on a

ledge of limestone, where we could see him plainly squat on his hind

legs and smooth his ruffled fur, after which he made for the creek with

a flourish of his tail, took a good drink, and scampered away into the

willow thicket."

The story at first blush seems incredible, but I have no doubt our red

squirrel would have made the leap safely; then why not the great black

squirrel, since its parachute would be proportionately large?

The tails of the squirrels are broad and long and flat, not short and

small like those of gophers, chipmunks, woodchucks, and other ground

rodents, and when they leap or fall through the air the tail is arched

and rapidly vibrates. A squirrel's tail, therefore, is something more

than ornament, something more than a flag; it not only aids him in

flying, but it serves as a cloak, which he wraps about him when he


In making the flying leap I have described the animals' legs are widely

extended, their bodies broadened and flattened, the tail stiffened and

slightly curved, and a curious tremulous motion runs through all. It is

very obvious that a deliberate attempt is made to present the broadest

surface possible to the air, and I think a red squirrel might leap from

almost any height to the ground without serious injury. Our flying

squirrel is in no proper sense a flyer. On the ground he is more

helpless than a chipmunk, because less agile. He can only sail or slide

down a steep incline from the top of one tree to the foot of another.

The flying squirrel is active only at night; hence its large, soft eyes,

its soft fur, and its gentle, shrinking ways. It is the gentlest and

most harmless of our rodents. A pair of them for two or three

successive years had their nest behind the blinds of an upper window of

a large, unoccupied country-house near me. You could stand in the room

inside and observe the happy family through the window pane against

which their nest pressed. There on the window sill lay a pile of large,

shining chestnuts, which they were evidently holding against a time of

scarcity, as the pile did not diminish while I observed them. The nest

was composed of cotton and wool which they filched from a bed in one of

the chambers, and it was always a mystery how they got into the room to

obtain it. There seemed to be no other avenue but the chimney flue.

Red and gray squirrels are more or less active all winter, though very

shy, and, I am inclined to think, partially nocturnal in their habits.

Here a gray one has just passed,--came down that tree and went up this;

there he dug for a beechnut, and left the burr on the snow. How did he

know where to dig? During an unusually severe winter I have known him to

make long journeys to a barn, in a remote field, where wheat was stored.

How did he know there was wheat there? In attempting to return, the

adventurous creature was frequently run down and caught in the deep


His home is in the trunk of some old birch or maple, with an entrance

far up amid the branches. In the spring he builds himself a summer-house

of small leafy twigs in the top of a neighboring beech, where the young

are reared and much of the time passed. But the safer retreat in the

maple is not abandoned, and both old and young resort thither in the

fall, or when danger threatens. Whether this temporary residence amid

the branches is for elegance or pleasure, or for sanitary reasons or

domestic convenience, the naturalist has forgotten to mention.

The elegant creature, so cleanly in its habits, so graceful in its

carriage, so nimble and daring in its movements, excites feelings of

admiration akin to those awakened by the birds and the fairer forms of

nature. His passage through the trees is almost a flight. Indeed, the

flying squirrel has little or no advantage over him, and in speed and

nimbleness cannot compare with him at all. If he miss his footing and

fall, he is sure to catch on the next branch; if the connection be

broken, he leaps recklessly for the nearest spray or limb, and secures

his hold, even if it be by the aid of his teeth.

His career of frolic and festivity begins in the fall, after the birds

have left us and the holiday spirit of nature has commenced to subside.

How much his presence adds to the pleasure of a saunter in the still

October woods. You step lightly across the threshold of the forest, and

sit down upon the first log or rock to await the signals. It is so still

that the ear suddenly seems to have acquired new powers, and there is no

movement to confuse the eye. Presently you hear the rustling of a

branch, and see it sway or spring as the squirrel leaps from or to it;

or else you hear a disturbance in the dry leaves, and mark one running

upon the ground. He has probably seen the intruder, and, not liking his

stealthy movements, desires to avoid a nearer acquaintance. Now he

mounts a stump to see if the way is clear, then pauses a moment at the

foot of a tree to take his bearings, his tail as he skims along

undulating behind him, and adding to the easy grace and dignity of his

movements. Or else you are first advised of his proximity by the

dropping of a false nut, or the fragments of the shucks rattling upon

the leaves. Or, again, after contemplating you a while unobserved, and

making up his mind that you are not dangerous, he strikes an attitude on

a branch, and commences to quack and bark, with an accompanying movement

of his tail. Late in the afternoon, when the same stillness reigns, the

same scenes are repeated. There is a black variety, quite rare, but

mating freely with the gray, from which it seems to be distinguished

only in color.

The red squirrel is more common and less dignified than the gray, and

oftener guilty of petty larceny about the barns and grain-fields. He is

most abundant in mixed oak, chestnut, and hemlock woods, from which he

makes excursions to the fields and orchards, spinning along the tops of

the fences, which afford not only convenient lines of communication, but

a safe retreat if danger threatens. He loves to linger about the

orchard; and, sitting upright on the topmost stone in the wall, or on

the tallest stake in the fence, chipping up an apple for the seeds, his

tail conforming to the curve of his back, his paws shifting and turning

the apple, he is a pretty sight, and his bright, pert appearance atones

for all the mischief he does. At home, in the woods, he is very

frolicsome and loquacious. The appearance of anything unusual, if after

contemplating it a moment, he concludes it not dangerous, excites his

unbounded mirth and ridicule, and he snickers and chatters, hardly able

to contain himself; now darting up the trunk of a tree and squealing in

derision, then hopping into position on a limb and dancing to the music

of his own cackle, and all for your special benefit.

There is something very human in this apparent mirth and mockery of the

squirrels. It seems to be a sort of ironical laughter, and implies

self-conscious pride and exultation in the laughter. "What a ridiculous

thing you are, to be sure!" he seems to say; "how clumsy and awkward,

and what a poor show for a tail! Look at me, look at me!"--and he capers

about in his best style. Again, he would seem to tease you and provoke

your attention; then suddenly assumes a tone of good-natured, childlike

defiance and derision. That pretty little imp, the chipmunk, will sit on

the stone above his den and defy you, as plainly as if he said so, to

catch him before he can get into his hole if you can.

A hard winter affects the chipmunks very little; they are snug and warm

in their burrows in the ground and under the rocks, with a bountiful

store of nuts or grain. I have heard of nearly a half-bushel of

chestnuts being taken from a single den. They usually hole up in

November, and do not come out again till March or April, unless the

winter is very open and mild. Gray squirrels, when they have been partly

domesticated in parks and groves near dwellings, are said to hide their

nuts here and there upon the ground, and in winter to dig them up from

beneath the snow, always hitting the spot accurately.

The red squirrel lays up no stores like the provident chipmunk, but

scours about for food in all weathers, feeding upon the seeds in the

cones of the hemlock that still cling to the tree, upon sumac-bobs, and

the seeds of frozen apples. I have seen the ground under a wild

apple-tree that stood near the woods completely covered with the

"chonkings" of the frozen apples, the work of the squirrels in getting

at the seeds; not an apple had been left, and apparently not a seed had

been lost. But the squirrels in this particular locality evidently got

pretty hard up before spring, for they developed a new source of

food-supply. A young bushy-topped sugar-maple, about forty feet high,

standing beside a stone fence near the woods, was attacked, and more

than half denuded of its bark. The object of the squirrels seemed to be

to get at the soft, white, mucilaginous substance (cambium layer)

between the bark and the wood. The ground was covered with fragments of

the bark, and the white, naked stems and branches had been scraped by

fine teeth. When the sap starts in the early spring, the squirrels add

this to their scanty supplies. They perforate the bark of the branches

of the maples with their chisel-like teeth, and suck the sweet liquid

as it slowly oozes out. It is not much as food, but evidently it helps.

I have said the red squirrel does not lay by a store of food for winter

use, like the chipmunk and the wood-mice; yet in the fall he sometimes

hoards in a tentative, temporary kind of way. I have seen his

savings--butternuts and black walnuts--stuck here and there in saplings

and trees near his nest; sometimes carefully inserted in the upright

fork of a limb or twig. One day, late in November, I counted a dozen or

more black walnuts put away in this manner in a little grove of locusts,

chestnuts, and maples by the roadside, and could but smile at the wise

forethought of the rascally squirrel. His supplies were probably safer

that way than if more elaborately hidden. They were well distributed;

his eggs were not all in one basket, and he could go away from home

without any fear that his storehouse would be broken into in his

absence. The next week, when I passed that way, the nuts were all gone

but two. I saw the squirrel that doubtless laid claim to them, on each


There is one thing the red squirrel knows unerringly that I do not

(there are probably several other things); that is, on which side of the

butternut the meat lies. He always gnaws through the shell so as to

strike the kernel broadside, and thus easily extract it; while to my

eyes there is no external mark or indication, in the form or appearance

of the nut, as there is in the hickory-nut, by which I can tell whether

the edge or the side of the meat is toward me. But examine any number of

nuts that the squirrels have rifled, and, as a rule, you will find they

always drill through the shell at the one spot where the meat will be

most exposed. Occasionally one makes a mistake, but not often. It stands

them in hand to know, and they do know. Doubtless, if butternuts were a

main source of my food, and I were compelled to gnaw into them, I should

learn, too, on which side my bread was buttered.

The cheeks of the red and gray squirrels are made without pockets, and

whatever they transport is carried in the teeth. They are more or less

active all winter, but October and November are their festal months.

Invade some butternut or hickory grove on a frosty October morning, and

hear the red squirrel beat the "juba" on a horizontal branch. It is a

most lively jig, what the boys call a "regular break-down," interspersed

with squeals and snickers and derisive laughter. The most noticeable

peculiarity about the vocal part of it is the fact that it is a kind of

duet. In other words, by some ventriloquial tricks, he appears to

accompany himself, as if his voice split up, a part forming a low

guttural sound, and a part a shrill nasal sound.