THE COCKTAIL SQUIRREL
In the balsam and spruce forests of Down East Maine, and in other places in this country as well, one can hear an almost contralto-level trill wafting between the trees. Sometimes this tune lasts for thirty seconds or more. This high-pitched warble is the call of a little roan-colored creature, a smidgen larger than a chipmunk, with a black stripe stretching along each edge of its underbelly between the front and back legs. A thin bristly tail, curling over this melodious animal’s back, quickly characterizes this songster as a red squirrel.
Unlike our common “squirrely” gray squirrel, the red squirrel is curious, cautious and confident. Also differing from gray squirrels, red squirrels establish territories, especially if the resources in an area abound. So, when Marian and I rented the cottage in Roque Bluffs, Maine, we found that the red squirrel residing in the surrounding fir trees had the deck incorporated into its territory. The squirrel’s appropriation did not come as a surprise. This enterprising critter had learned that, when humans utilize the deck, they bring peanuts, potato chips, bread, crackers, and a variety of other goodies. We did just that. So we became the red squirrel’s chattel.
Whenever we went onto the deck, within moments the red squirrel made its presence known by running along the rail and jumping on the pedestal at the stairway to the beach. There it stood upright, projected its mouth forward, shaped the opening into an “O” and then released its loud, bird-like warble. Sometimes it ran across the deck or the rail, stopped in front of us and stared. Then it ran off and chased chipmunks and other red squirrels away. After which, the little character returned, stood in front of us and scolded for about a minute.
Marian and I were definitely guilty of enticement, because we knowingly threw crumbs and peanuts on the deck to attract birds and forest creatures. And, they came, chipmunks, red squirrels, raccoons, and others. We didn’t know we were interfering with the dominant red squirrel’s domain. We learned that there were many red squirrels in the forest, but only one owned our deck. All the others were interlopers; to me one red squirrel looks like another. In the late afternoon the difference became apparent.
As soon as Marian and I emerged from the cottage to watch the sun set, and no sooner did we become comfortable in the deck chairs, place our cocktails or wine glasses on the side tables and open the can of peanuts, then the little critter, with his tail erect, came zipping up the stairway from the trees near the beach. He’d run along the rail to the far corner of the deck, then assume the upright pose and sing his ditty for all to hear. He finished his song with a several “tetch, tetch, tetches” then scampered back to where we sat, jumped onto the first knee available and sat up. If this knee happened to belong to me, and I ignored his presence and continued to read, I’d feel his cool nose and whiskers vibrating against my fingers, while he energetically inspected them. Finding nothing, his little face would appear over the book’s spine and I’d see a pair of black shining eyes focused on mine. In my mind’s ear, I heard a telepathic communication saying “The charge for using my deck is peanuts!”
A gentle request, I thought as I reached into the can of peanuts and offered him one. The red squirrel would take the nut with his paws, rotate it about, jump back to the rail and eat it and then, return.
After several iterations of this activity, the squirrel would streak away at lighting speed to the pedestal, jump on it, sit upright, fold his front legs against his chest and curl his tail into a crosier. Then came the quivering song and a thorough inspection of the territory and deck, before he scampered back to my knee.
As long as we provided the red squirrel with peanuts — the peanuts we fed the squirrel were shelled and unsalted — he took them. However, after eating several, he would place a single uneaten peanut in his mouth and dash away behind the cottage or down the hillside into the forest. We assumed he took the nuts to a nest, until I followed the little critter one day and found that he stored the peanuts in one of the many burrows located in the hillside. I guess the red squirrels dug these burrows. Although, as I mentioned before, there were other red squirrels and many chipmunks in the area, so I am not sure which creatures owned these holes. Apparently, neither did any of the other critters, because I observed chipmunks enter them after the squirrel left. The squirrel was hoarding the peanuts and everyone knew where he hid his stash.
We called this dominant red squirrel the cocktail squirrel because of its total involvement with us at the time of day when we stopped to enjoy a cocktail. When the cocktail hour arrived, rain, fog or shine, I could set my watch with the cocktail squirrel’s arrival. He scurried about the deck, stopped for a moment and peered through the windows of the sliding door as if he were beckoning us to come outside. He continued this behavior until one of us came to sit on the deck or place a dish of peanuts on the rail. Eventually, the cocktail squirrel became comfortable enough to sit on one of our shoulders. If he weren’t given a peanut, he’d examine our hands and checkout our shirt pockets. Several times, he crawled headfirst into my pocket searching for a tidbit. There he sat with his head sticking out — a silly sight to see a nervous little head sticking our your pocket. If his quest were unsuccessful, he’d return to the shoulder and stare at us. Then he’d jump off the shoulder onto the deck and run off. I heard his little feet pattering rapidly across the deck as he ran away.
A peanut elicited a song; no peanut, stimulated a disparaging stare, then total disregard.
During times when the cocktail squirrel was absent, chipmunks and the neighboring red squirrels came to the deck and, of course, we fed them too, knowing that after a period of sulking the cocktail squirrel would return.
If upon return, the others were still on deck, Marian and I were entertained by a scolding, squealing, chattering confrontation. The cocktail squirrel chased all the interlopers off the deck, across the yard and into the forest. We continued to hear, from afar, the critters squawking and screeching as they were being chased through the depths of the forest.
After a few minutes the cocktail squirrel returned, stood on the rail or a chair and scolded everyone around, animals, birds and us, for the next five minutes.
The cocktail squirrel became so important around the Roque Bluffs cottage that, on our grocery list, a jar of unsalted peanuts turned into a staple. We enjoyed being accepted by this gentle, charismatic little creature during the two summers that we visited Roque Bluffs.
I believe that the cocktail squirrel has lasting memory, because, when we returned the second year, his behavior had not change. It was as if we had never left. On the first evening at the cottage, when we appeared on deck, the antics of the cocktail squirrel were exactly the same as in the previous year. Perhaps he will still be in charge of the deck at the Roque Bluffs cottage in Maine when we return again.