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An essay by Elizabeth Brightwen


Title:     Squirrels
Author: Elizabeth Brightwen [More Titles by Brightwen]

If one lives in the country where these graceful little animals exist, it is well worth while to attract them near the house so that one may enjoy the sight their gambols and minister to their wants by suitable diet. As I have already said, for many years food was placed in a basket outside the dining-room window to attract the charming little titmice, and four species might be seen feasting on fat of different kinds. I placed Barcelona nuts for the nuthatches, and they came and shared the contents of the basket with the tits. The nuts also drew a squirrel to the spot, and after about a year, the little fellow became so used to seeing us moving in the room that he would sit in the basket with his graceful little tail curved over his back, cracking his nuts, and nibbling away quite at ease. Then the window was opened and the nuts put on a table inside the room, and there little "Frolic" sits whilst we are at meals and forms one of the family, holding his nuts cleverly in his paws, whilst his sharp teeth bite a hole in them, and, regardless of tidiness, he flings the shells about as he nibbles at the kernels, looking at us with his black, beady eyes, perhaps speculating upon what our breakfast may be. How much more enjoyable is this sort of pet than a poor caged squirrel whirling round in his wheel, condemned to a dreary life, with no freedom or change, no intercourse with his kind.

In town there is, perhaps, no way to keep a squirrel but in a cage; even so, by an occasional release from its captivity, a constant variety in its food, and its being talked to and noticed, its life may be made less irksome, and, if young, it may eventually be made quite tame, and become an interesting daily companion.

We derived great amusement from our squirrel visitors; one after another they would leap up the side of the window and spring in and out of the basket in quick succession, carrying away a nut at each visit, playing and skirmishing with each other in lively fashion. I am sorry to confess there was great jealousy amongst them. A second squirrel took to coming into the room, and Frolic and he had a pitched battle, in which our favourite, poor little fellow! lost half his ear, and a sponge and water were needed to efface the sanguinary stains left by the fight.

The squirrel's great enemy is the cat. One would not think she could catch the agile little creature; but one day we saw a cat watching an unconscious little squirrel under the tulip-tree: we did not dream that she could harm it, but in a moment she made one swift rush at her prey. The squirrel ran at full speed, but alas! before we could interfere it was caught and carried away.

At Dropmore, the gardener told us he had a cat that kept the Pinetum quite clear of squirrels. They certainly nibble the young shoots of firs and horse-chestnuts unmercifully in the spring, and one very dry summer they took very kindly to our peaches and nectarines; but I freely forgive their little sins, and should be sorry to miss them from the lawn where there are often four or five to be seen at once.

They chase each other round a tree-stem with wonderful agility, and express their animosity with angry grunts and a stamp of the foot like a rabbit. In autumn I have acorns and beech-mast collected, and store some bushels of each to be doled out through the winter and spring; strewn under the tulip-tree this food, mixed with corn, attracts an amusing variety of live creatures. Besides the squirrels which are constantly there, we see jays, wood-pigeons, jackdaws, rooks, and flocks of the smaller birds; if snow should prevail, a whole rookery will come to see what is to be had. By constantly watching their movements I have learnt that the squirrel's tail has quite a language of its own. It can be curved over its back and so spread out that on a wet day it forms a complete shelter from rain. It will take the form of a note of interrogation or lie flat on the ground, stand out at an angle or bristle with anger, according to the mood of the possessor.

I did not find the American chipmunks, before alluded to, at all tameable. They were very handsome, of grey colour with dark brown stripes on their sides.

They were extremely wild, and would spring round their cage in perfect terror when looked at, so, finding they could not be made happy in confinement, I let them loose in the garden in the hope they might burrow under a large rhododendron clump, but after a day or two they disappeared, and I suppose they made their escape to a neighbouring wood, so that I have little hope of ever seeing them again.

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Elizabeth Brightwen's Essay: Squirrels