Friday, September 28, 2012

Soliloquy in Gray

“I wish I could have known whatever it was that he said.”

By Patrick J. Walsh

I recently encountered a squirrel who was sitting in the middle of a paved road, posed like some garden statuary, intently gnawing on a small nut.

Known by the scientific name Sciurus carolinensis, the Eastern gray squirrel is less formally known as the ‘common’ gray squirrel. And the little creatures are quite common indeed in this part of the world, and in the park where I walk each day.

In these suburbs, it is not at all unusual to see and hear a lot of squirrels. They dart across the paved roads, and the sounds of their bounding tracks in the dry leaves make the nearby woods seem alive with constant movement.

At their most graceful, they leap from branch to branch overhead, experiencing the brightness of the sunlight in a far more direct fashion than those of us who make our way beneath the canopy of leafy trees.

Squirrelly worries

And sometimes, apparently, they worry about things. Or at least they seem to worry, if the particular squirrel I met on the road is reasonably representative of his species.

photo © Patrick J. Walsh
I recently encountered a squirrel who was sitting in the
middle of a paved road, posed like some garden statuary...
At first glance, he made something of a comic appearance. The white of his underbelly was marked by a series of brownish spots, as though he had been messy with past meals. He seemed well concentrated on his dinner, and he made no move to flee even as I advanced fairly close to him.

His only initial reaction to my curious glance was to bleat nervously in that squeaky, odd, up and down staccato that characterizes a particular sub-genre of squirrel communication.

Have you ever heard squirrels “speak”? They make a sound like a squeak toy — those rubber playthings that dogs chase and retrieve and chew on until they grow bored with the game, or tired of the noise. For a squirrel, the squeak is an important component of a multi-faceted approach to signaling alarm or allure.

In addition to a variety of vocal calls and messages, squirrels also communicate by the way they position themselves and by the manner in which they move their tails.

Squeak and Weave

Watching the brown-spotted squirrel from a short distance, listening to his nervous, plaintive inhaled-exhaled squeaking, I wondered for an instant if he might be hurt. Distracted by my interest, he sat very still, holding the nut tight against the messy, speckled white fur of his chest. He continued to make the worried-sounding squeak the whole while.

Then, as I started past, he ducked slightly and leaned sharply to the right, away from the direction from which I had just approached. His quick weave was something akin to a child’s mimicry of a boxer maneuvering in a prize fight ring. It was difficult not to see some humor in the frantic motion, or to feel some relief at the obvious proof that the little creature was not injured.

He quickly darted off toward a nearby tree, still clutching the nut, skittering away quickly as squirrels do, in their squirrelly way.

As I moved on, I thought of his squeaky soliloquy, and I wished that I could have known whatever it was that he had said.

© Patrick J. Walsh

The Walk in the Park series:
• The Hawk

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