Squirrel midden

Our backyard dog-pen is fringed by a row of towering spruce and pine trees that serve as a curtain between our yard and our neighbors’. They say good fences make good neighbors, but a line of towering trees makes the best fence of all because it shelters an assortment of nonhuman residents. By day we’ve seen red-tailed and Cooper’s hawks in “our” backyard conifers, and after dark we’ve heard both screech and barred owls. At least one raccoon occasionally naps in these trees, and year round they harbor chickadees, nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers.

Squirrel midden

Right now, our backyard spruces are particularly attractive to our neighborhood gray and red squirrels, who have been feasting on spruce cones. Squirrels eat spruce cones the way humans eat corn on the cob, sitting on a comfortable perch and biting off one scale at a time to expose the tasty seeds within. What’s left behind is a pile of green and brown scales and the central “cob” that held them together. These castoff piles of inedible detritus are called “middens,” and they serve as an undeniable sign that squirrels have been feeding here, just like the snack wrappers and soda cans left by hungry litterbugs.

Squirrel midden

I read that red squirrels in particular can build middens large enough for them to burrow into, like human hoarders wedged between piles of salvaged newspapers and pie tins. If you’re going to assemble a trash heap as large as a garage, you might as well get some use out of it. Our backyard dog pen is right next to our garage, and so far the scattered piles left by snacking squirrels haven’t come close to rivaling its size, but I’m still surprised at how many middens I found this morning once I started looking for them.

Squirrel midden

I knew our neighborhood squirrels are voracious things, gladly cleaning out our bird feeders as quickly as we fill them. Now I know that squirrels are as messy as they are insatiable, leaving behind spruce tree “empties” to map the geography of their appetites.

Not-so-finicky predator

If you’ve ever wondered what your cute little kitty does when you let him or her outside, here’s a partial answer. Not only can house cats catch and kill birds and mice, they occasionally kill and eat squirrels.

Killer kitty

And yes, this cat was enthusiastically eating a squirrel when J and I spotted her during an afternoon walk around Newton this weekend, even though by the looks of it she wasn’t wanting for food. When has simply being well-fed stopped any of us from saying “no” to a particularly tempting tidbit?

We pet-owners seem to think a collar, a regular supply of kibble, lots of cuddling, and several hundred generations of domestication can irrevocably redeem cats and dogs from their “wild” ways, but occasionally even the most pampered pussy returns to her natural predatory habits. In discussing the ethics of meat-eating, my undergraduate Eastern Philosophy professor described some acquaintances’ misguided attempts to raise vegetarian pets. “It is in a cat’s dharma to eat meat,” my professor explained after having defined “dharma” as the underlying nature or “law” of a given creature. Expecting a cat to live like a meat-eschewing Buddhist monk was contrary to the laws of nature, he suggested, and was thus doomed to failure.

The after-Easter bunny?

If you own cats and love nature, the best thing you can do to protect all creatures great and small is to keep Kitty inside. Even thickly settled suburbs like Newton offer a tasty array of feline temptations…and even the suburbs are wild enough to harbor coyotes that consider cats as cuisine.

J has nine cats, and they all live happily indoors…which is why both rabbits and squirrels romp with abandon in his yard, taunting dogs and cats alike. If this sounds like a happy version of the Peaceable Kingdom, take note: J’s resident backyard rabbit demonstrates a voracious fondness for fresh spring greenery, which is the kind of predatory dharma cottontails are prone to. Regardless of your species or level of domestication, it’s a jungle out there.

Picnic squirrel

You might remember this picnic table, sans squirrel, from about a month ago. Back then, I mentioned the shade under which this picnic table sits; what I didn’t mention was the walnut-laden source of that shade. If you’re a squirrel laying up provisions for winter, it’s mighty convenient to have a picnic table right under a walnut tree upon which you can sample your collection. And if you’re a strolling blogger who never goes out without a camera, these days blog-fodder is ripe for the taking.

On campus today, I saw more students in each of my classes than I’ve seen in months. Now that we’re heading into Thanksgiving with the end of the semester soon thereafter, students are getting serious about their studies. I’ve often joked that I do more real teaching–and to students who are actually listening–during the last two or three weeks of the semester than during all the other weeks combined. Weeks one through eleven are purely preparatory; weeks twelve through fifteen are when students sit up in their seats, listen to what you have to say, and actually seek you out for extra help.

Walnut squirrel

I guess it makes sense that students, like squirrels, get serious about stockpiling only when there’s a bite of briskness in the air. When the semester starts, it still feels like summer, so it’s easy to think “I’ll do it later” when considering assignments or even class attendance. As the days grow shorter and colder, things heat up academically. The next few weeks are when the intellectual rubber hits the road with term-long research papers and other projects approaching full ripeness. Which squirrels have been faithful hoarders and which have been only acting squirrely? We’ll find out in a few weeks. In the meantime, I still look forward every marathon Tuesday to the brief midday break I take to consider squirrels and other shade-loving creatures.