Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Kate Crowley
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

Poncho, the chaser of squirrels

Going Nature's Way

 


I once read that in pre-settlement times, the forests of North America were so great that a squirrel could theoretically travel from the eastern seaboard all the way to the Mississippi River without ever once touching the ground. This thought came to mind as I watched our dog Poncho pursue a gray squirrel in the front yard. He is very much like the dog in the movie Up who responds automatically to the word “squirrel” ... except the dog in the movie freezes when he hears the word. Poncho springs into action. I admit that we had something to do with this behavior, knowing he likes to chase squeaky toys, and squirrels are about the same size as some of his toys. And we didn’t reprimand him when he started to chase these prolific fluffy tailed rodents. Based on his enthusiasm for the job, he must have some hunting dog in his genes.

This squirrel and others just like it have demonstrated the ability to cover a good section of our property by running and leaping from one branch to the other. In the front of the house there are two dead aspen trees. We let them stand, in order to give the woodpeckers and nuthatches a chance to search for insects. It’s a wonder that they haven’t fallen yet since their bark is all gone and the trunks are riddled with holes of all sizes, on all sides. It is the taller of these trees that the squirrels climb as they run from the dog.

Often the squirrel will sit next to the trunk on a broken branch that sticks out about two feet. Here it grooms and scratches itself as if there is nothing wrong. Biologists sometimes describe this kind of activity as displacement behavior. When an animal is in a stressful situation – usually fight or flight, it will suddenly do something totally incongruous, like grooming. Some will just sit there and wait until Poncho is brought inside, and they can safely descend. But most squirrels don’t have the patience to wait and so they go out to the very end of the broken branch and then leap into open space. Looking up from below it appears to be a good 5 feet to reach the very skinny branch of a nearby birch tree.

I have watched many squirrels take this chance and generally they grab ahold of the branch, flip upside down and run a ways like this, before righting themselves and continuing on their way. It always astounds me to see them do this. I actually witnessed one squirrel fail in this daring, acrobatic feat. Sailing through the air it just barely grabbed the birch branch, but didn’t have a good grip and fell at least 20 feet to the ground. As soon as it hit, it was up and running to the nearest aspen just inches ahead of the pursuing canine. I could almost feel the adrenaline coursing through its veins.

Once in the birch tree it is like an elevated walkway through a line of old red and Jack pines on the west side of the house. There may be some places where they must jump again, but nothing like the Evil Knievel stunt from the aspen. From there it’s a quick trip into the deeper woods behind the house. Poncho will stand below and crane his neck trying to follow the squirrel but soon loses sight of it and returns to his post on the deck to await the next furry intruder.

Squirrels instinctively know that being out in the open is a dangerous place in a world filled with predators.  The locals have tested Poncho’s skills and so far they have outrun him, but he is fast and statistics probably would have him eventually catching one.

I don’t have anything against squirrels, but I prefer to have birds at my feeders. Poncho is not always outside so the resident squirrels still manage to get a good amount of sunflower seeds from our multiple feeders. But they have become highly attuned to the sound of the sliding door opening and a large blond beast charging out and appearing for all the world like a death angel.

At times we have seen seven gray squirrels in the yard and near the feeders. Those numbers could grow significantly in the coming month, since we have just passed the winter breeding season. Anywhere from 2-4 babies are born about 44 days after mating. This will be repeated from June through August. Our forest provides lots of nesting sites, whether in tree hollows or in a leaf nest at the top of the trees. By 12 weeks of age, the young are completely independent and ready to join the crowds around the feeders. Then they too will have to learn the rules of survival as enforced by Poncho.

 

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