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Big Little Rodent: Squirrels are highly adaptable, entertaining little fellows

Squirrels are highly adaptable, entertaining little fellows, but be warned — they can read you the riot act if need be

riot act, riot act by squirrel,  Ranjit Lal, environmentalist, birdwatcher, environment, jungle land, human behavior, animals, jungle Up here in the north of the country, we are thus charmed by the five-striped palm squirrel, down south replaced by the three-striped palm squirrel.

Down In Jungleland

It’s bad enough being read the riot act by your boss, spouse or teacher — but it’s downright embarrassing to be read the riot act by a squirrel.
Of course, I can explain: you see, my dog (RIP) is totally mental, so when it darted across the path without checking, and zipped right under his nose, he chased it. Yes, of course he didn’t mean to chase it three times around the park, barking his head off (so all its friends could titter) and up this tree, but he’s just a young (vegetarian) pup and got carried away. Won’t happen again, I promise.

But, of course it does, because squirrels (and dogs) are like that only. At the best of times, squirrels are hot-tempered little rodents and seem to like nothing better than to scamper up to a safe perch, turn around and yell at you like a fishwife at Mapusa market, flicking their tails up and down indignantly. This can be useful if there’s a cat slinking around, because now the squirrel will “chit-chit” so shrilly and indignantly that it’ll summon a backup mob of all the birds in the locality to drive or shame away the filthy feline.

Up here in the north of the country, we are thus charmed by the five-striped palm squirrel, down south replaced by the three-striped palm squirrel. The family’s name is Funambulus which is the first really cool scientific name I’ve come across in a long time. They’re highly adaptable little hustlers and have settled quite happily in big cities. They have eclectic tastes, contentedly nibbling seeds, fruits, flowers, leaves, nuts, bread, eggs, insects, tree bark, namkeen, and even baby birds. Legend has it that Lord Ram gently stroked a helpful squirrel during a bridge building project (you know which one, don’t you?) leaving the light-coloured stripes on its back. At the same time, they have a lifestyle that would leave the lunatic fringe cross-eyed with confusion.

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The lady squirrel is a swinging single mom. When the mood’s right — usually in the spring and during the rains — she’ll go out romancing as many dudes as she can (who will fight over her) and there’ll be much racing and chasing around the boughs. But when the babies come, she’ll play the sacrosanct ‘ma’ to the hilt. She makes her home and nursery — usually a large ball of grass or straw and whatever suitable furnishings she can find — up in a tree, or on roof eaves or any such suitable nook and cranny. The good-for-nothing father would have been turfed out long ago and will play no further parenthood role. She’s fiercely protective of her brood, usually of two or three “pups”, and will assiduously care for them for two months.

Many years ago, in Madras (as it was then), a cyclone shook down a balcony chik in a beach shack and a squirrel’s nest lay in tatters on the floor as though visited by the municipality. My elder sister picked up the tiny twitching baby that lay amidst the ruins of its nursery and brought it home. Of the mom, there was no sign. She put it in a birdcage stuffed with rags (placed next to her bed at night) and fed it milk with an ink dropper. She even took it to her convent school so it could have a good education. It soon became a happy on-the-shoulder-and-in-the-pocket pet, and then graduated to seeking wider pastures — the huge garden outside. It would spend the days outdoors, but return home in the evenings, scolding shrilly if doors and windows were not open. Eventually, it presumably met a sweet young thing or handsome dude and left home for good.

Squirrels in India do not hibernate, but they do tuck goodies away and sometimes forget where. They seem to have dialects too: when I first came to Delhi, many years ago, I had been puzzled by this shrill sharp call I kept hearing and thought it belonged to some bird. Then one day, I found myself being soundly scolded by a squirrel, obviously indignant that I had mistaken it for some silly hysterical bird. In my defence, the squirrels I had hitherto encountered in Mumbai had sounded very different.

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Incidentally, if you are stranded with an orphaned baby squirrel, there are sites on the net that can guide you in squirrel parenting every step of the way, with diets, feeding charts, healthcare etc (You will get very little sleep during the early months, for instance).

In spite of the scoldings (all done for your good of course), they are entertaining little animals to watch, even if someone (not me!) once called them “rats with bushy tails”. They’re nimble tightrope walkers of vines and telephone lines, will play breakneck games of tag and when hungry, might even hop onto your lap to check your pockets. They can bite if you get too familiar with them (or your pockets are empty) and are known to carry rabies, so you have been warned. (Sheesh, imagine being chased by a rabid squirrel!) It’s even more fun to watch them tussle over territory and tidbits with parakeets at feeding spots in parks — it’s a tug-of-war of power politics being played out right there in the open. Just like between our centre and the state capital.

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher

First published on: 21-06-2015 at 01:00:12 am
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