Death Cycle Part 2: The Squirrels Hold a Funeral

After we put the roadkilled squirrel on the roof of the shed, I went inside. Half an hour later, there was news. Tracy said the squirrels were pitching a fit. She added, not necessarily seriously, "They're holding a funeral."

I went outside. At first I had a hard time hearing them. Someone was mowing a lawn, and my sons Beckett and Griffin were on the patio knocking their action figures into the wading pool; a blue jay was complaining about something, and a crow barked like a chainsaw with asthma. But then I heard the squirrel voices, some small and soft, some louder. They all chanted in short steady barks. They took breaks, but the pattern once they started up again was the same, a monotonous and steady chant. I walked out toward the shed, keeping an eye open for squirrels. The sounds told me I was getting closer. When I neared the shed, all but one soft squirrel voice stopped. That one voice was close, and I spotted its source on a pine branch near the shed. It was a small squirrel, its fur very red and fresh-looking.

Until then I hadn't really thought about what species of squirrel I'd tossed on the shed. It seems clear, though, that it was a gray squirrel, whereas these chatterers, or at least the one I could see, were American reds. These species are enemies. The little red kept chirping. It seemed to be looking down at the carcass. When it saw me, it didn't panic, but slowly moved away along the branches until I lost sight of it.

I hadn't at all anticipated this reaction from the other squirrels of the neighborhood. How to explain it? Before I realized the chatterers were a different species, I had imagined they were spreading news—"Hey, Charlie's dead!"

A little reading tells me that scientists have made some headway in understanding squirrel communication. Apparently, when grays chant slowly, it means some danger has passed. I don't know whether the reds have a similar system, but I suppose it would make sense here—they noticed their enemy was dead and they told their friends.

As I stood looking that first afternoon, the live squirrels thrashed around in the trees near me quite a while. At one point a little rain of pine needles fell as some violent motion stirred the branches. I saw the little red several times. The picture shows—well, nothing. They were always too fast for me. The next morning, Tracy reported a lot of squirrel chatter from the yard, with some fast, high voices and some slower, deeper ones. They all fell silent when the crows began to call.

However, a lot happened before that. More in my next installment.




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