When I first arrived in Abiquiu I began feeding the birds. After about a week I had canyon towhees who greeted me with enthusiasm in the morning, rose breasted house finches and pine siskins that dropped to the ground to eat the seed even as hawks soared overhead. Best of all I didn’t have even one squirrel!
Naively, I assumed that the high desert must be free of these pernicious pests. In the mornings I would happily scatter seed on the ground broadcasting to the neighborhood that food was abundant here under my homemade bird oasis. Desert cottontails and jack rabbits appeared from dawn to dusk and soon the scaled quail scurried to the spot peeping as they raced across the desert floor.
One day about a month after moving here I glimpsed what I earnestly hoped was not a very large squirrel peering at the birds from the roof of the Ramada. I picked up the binoculars to better identify the creature in question. This animal was definitely a squirrel – a big one. I groaned inwardly. I had been overrun with squirrels in Maine, and after attempting to live with them unsuccessfully for years had eventually caught and probably transported about 1500 red and gray squirrels to another world. The “reds” with their endless chittering were the worst. I didn’t want to repeat that process here in New Mexico.
In spite of my bias I had to admit that this large squirrel was actually quite beautiful with his thick mottled gray overcoat and long fluffy tail. Best of all he didn’t chatter incessantly. I watched him nibble some leaves off a nearby bush before jumping down to the ground and slyly making his run towards my oasis. I watched first with awe and then with dismay as the squirrel sucked down sunflower seed like an out of control hoover vacuum cleaner! Naturally, he scared all the birds away. I quickly opened the door to interrupt the gluttony noting his bulging cheeks as he streaked past me. I also knew that this gesture of mine was ultimately pointless because the squirrels in my life were never afraid of me.
Sighing, I acknowledged that another round of squirrel harassment was on the horizon.
With the adage “keep your enemies near” I turned to my desert guide-book for information on this squirrel’s identity and habits…
Flipping through the photos I soon discovered that my intruder was a desert rock squirrel. When I read that he dug burrows in the ground or rocky crevices I went out and examined the strange hole that had opened up in the driveway just the day before – It was about three inches in diameter and when I fed it a small stone the stone disappeared down the hole without a sound! I wondered if this was the rock squirrel’s burrow… Sure enough, the very next morning as I scattered more seed I kept a sharp eye on the hole until a furry gray head with small round ears and a piercing stare appeared for a second before the squirrel popped out of the ground.
Resigned to the fact that this squirrel had moved in I decided to do some further research to answer the next most important question: did he co habit with many others of his kind? Implicit in this question was the fear that I might be overrun by giant squirrels!
I learned that the rock squirrel (Spermophilus variegatus) was the largest of three desert squirrels, the only one weighing up to 1.5 pounds. These rodents are found in most desert habitats and are true omnivores feeding on seeds, mesquite beans, insects, eggs, birds and cactus fruit! Some sources said they were territorial.
Most fascinating was the fact that the rock squirrel kills snakes. When encountering a snake, the squirrel will stamp his feet and wave his tail side to side while facing his enemy. The wily rodent also tries to flick sand in the snake’s face with his front paws. This behavior is called mobbing. Apparently rock squirrels can distinguish between venomous and non- venomous snakes and change their mobbing behavior accordingly. However, they are known to attack rattlesnakes, probably because they can partially neutralize snake venom. Rattlesnakes have heat – sensing organs that can detect a change in temperature as little as 0.01 F from one foot away. The squirrel takes advantage of this by pumping extra blood into its tail to make the tail warmer than it’s body fooling the snake into striking the tail rather than the torso. Wow, what an ingenious trickster.
In spite of my general antipathy towards squirrels I was impressed. Unfortunately the sources that I consulted were either vague or contradictory on the issue of whether these animals were solitary or gregarious. Some articles said they lived in groups, others stated that the animals were solitary. Had I gotten lucky? I did note that my furry friend seemed to be working alone and that he never made a sound. Come spring and mating season all that might change. I decided that for now, at least, I could cope with one silent intruder. I named him the “Hooligan” to remind me that, for me anyway, he was still considered an interloper even though I ruefully acknowledged that on the whole squirrels had every right to be living here because the desert was their home.
One day after watching the Hooligan make a run for the seed from his burrow entrance (there are always hawks circling around in the air) I had the brilliant idea of covering up his hole in the driveway with a flat rock to see what he might do. The next morning I watched the rock begin to move by itself as I spread seed on the ground! In seconds I watched the Hooligan push the rock completely out of his way with his shoulder and front paws, as he popped out of his hole. Maybe I should have named him Houdini? Later that afternoon I chose a large heavier red rock and put that over the entrance of his tunnel to see what he would do next. The following morning the Hooligan stared at me from the top of the Ramada’s chimney with steely black eyes. Clearly he had other entrances to his burrow besides the one he liked to pop out of in the driveway (presumably because that entrance was closest to the seed). He never uttered a sound, but the sense I had was that this latest rock trick of mine had backfired, and the Hooligan was upset with me. Chagrined, I moved the big rock away as he disappeared down the chimney only to reappear in seconds from the hole in the driveway. I apologized to him as he ran towards the oasis for his breakfast. Clearly, he was caching extra seed for the winter because he didn’t leave until his cheeks were bulging.
I hate to admit it but I have come to enjoy the Hooligan’s presence and would miss him if he left! I like living in harmony with an animal I once abhorred. Keen observation has taught me his habits. I have learned to put out enough seed in the morning while he watches me from his chimney or from his closest burrow entrance so that he gets breakfast before he vacates the premises. Where does he go in between morning and late afternoon meals, I am always wondering? After he leaves I feed the rest of the birds who then have a chance to eat in peace. Late in the afternoons, I repeat the same process; the Hooligan gets his meal and leaves. Then I scatter seed around for the other birds. My little Chihuahuas alert me to the Hooligan’s presence if I am otherwise occupied, so together we have system that works well for all of us. What pleases me the most is that we are all sharing the same space in peace.