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December 6, 2013

Gray squirrels bring back some fond memories

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The Daily Star

---- — I was on my hill sitting in a tree stand about a month ago when a large, gray squirrel ran across a branch not far from me.

I was actually surprised. There hasn’t been a gray squirrel in my woods for many years, at least none that I’ve seen. I watched him go from branch to branch and then down the trunk of a large, red oak tree.

Gosh, that brought back a lot of memories. I grew up in those woods and spent many hours sitting at the base of a tree just waiting for the squirrels to come out and gather nuts. By never moving anything but my eyeballs, I’d impatiently wait. Finally, I’d see one and easily dispatch it with my .22. I’d take two or three of them and my grandmother would cook them up for dinner. They were great.

Those hunting trips taught me a lot. I needed a keen eye, a little patience and good marksmanship.

It’s funny when I would hunt squirrels. Sometimes I’d spot one while walking through the woods. The little rodent would hold on tight to a large branch high up in the tree top and move around that branch as I walked around the tree. That little critter would always keep himself on the opposite side of the tree from me.

If there were two of us, though, they were easy to fool. One stood still while the other circled the tree. Even as a teenager, I noticed that squirrels can’t count.

Gray squirrels seem to be everywhere. They live in parks and forests, and I even stopped for one while driving up Maple Street the other day. I had to stop because he was in the crosswalk, so I guess he had the right of way.

They live in deciduous forests, those with trees that lose their leaves in the fall. They love acorns and beech nuts but will eat the seeds from maples and birch when there is no mast crop. Actually, they eat insects, baby birds, other small rodents, eggs, grasses, wild fruits and berries. They gather food all summer and store it for the cold winter months. Using their keen sense of smell, they find their stored cache when times are tough.

Gray squirrels mate in the winter and have two litters of young each year — one in the spring and one in the summer. They raise their young in nests built of leaves in the crotches of large trees.

Most of our eastern squirrels are gray, but there is a black variety.

My wife, Pat, and I were camping on Wellesley Island in the St. Lawrence River one summer. Every squirrel there was as black as coal except for one, which was an albino. He really stuck out like a sore thumb.

One day I was driving down Chestnut Street. Two gray squirrels were walking across a wire from one side of the street to another. Squirrels are great tree top athletes and use their tails for balance. They’re not bad on tight ropes (wires) either.

I’m glad the squirrels are back. Maybe they were there all the time, but I never seemed to notice.

I do have to give them credit, though. They’re a heck of a lot quieter in the leaves than their distant cousin. The chipmunk makes enough noise to wake the dead, but if that squirrel hadn’t crossed in front of me, I’d never have known he was there.

Rick Brockway writes a weekly outdoors column for The Daily Star. Email him at robrockway@hotmail.com.