There are countless other creatures with whom we share this world. Often we take but a passing notice of them. Our lives might be hectic; we may have little time to take in what is happening around us and to see all the activities and occurrences in the busy lives of those who live in our midst but we do not choose to pay our attentions to. Or it may be the places where we live are sparsely populated by furry or feathered residents, let alone the natural setting needed for their (and our) health and well-being.
Every now and then, however, one may find a bird’s nest in a nearby tree, or, also commonly found in peopled habitats, a squirrel, and come to see them repeatedly and learn something of their lives and habits. For a time my family and I were fortunate enough to live beside a lake and nearby hills and thereby came into contact with a number of animals. Our fence was removed, twice, by a large black bear (a creature best observed only from a distance or through a window) my daughter, in her youthful wisdom, named Potato Chip. A tiny cottontail appeared in the yard as nothing more than a small tuft of fur with a pair of stubby ears and lived under our porch for a summer before finding a bush in a field across the road. Several other rabbits lived beneath the bush, and naturally our rabbit found it a more appealing accommodation. The rabbits would still bound across the road for a visit, and besides chasing one another over the field or sitting for hours in the shade of a tree they found quite some enjoyment in rolling fallen apples with their noses before making a snack of them.
Then there came the remarkable young mallard my wife gave the name Rosemary— who we had watched grow from being one of eleven hatchlings— to our porch one evening. Noticing a little brown ball on the wooden planks in the dim light through a window as I was preparing dinner, I slowly opened the door, and, after realizing it was a duck and thinking she might be lost or ill, I went out with my meal and sat with her. We sat on the porch together, eventually joined by my wife and daughter, for more than five hours. We talked to her and offered her a bite to eat only to find she had no interest in apples. After darkness settled in my wife called on a friend who keeps ducks and with her advice we arranged a room and coaxed Rosemary (she needed very little coaxing as she waddled right in and made herself at home) into the house to protect her from any wanderers of the night. I made a makeshift bed by the door to keep watch over her in the event it dawned upon her she was surrounded by walls. If the notion did dawn upon her, she did not mind it in the least. When I awakened with the dawn she was sleeping comfortably with her head tucked under her wing. After she too awakened, my wife and I decided to lead her out and tried to persuade her to follow us to the lake. Rosemary, however, had other ideas. She was quite content to stay. She sat back down on the porch and refused to leave. Indeed she watched our efforts with what I can only describe as some degree of amusement. Finally, we drew her out with a promise of breakfast and discovered she was neither ill nor incapable of flight. After waddling behind us across the field to the trail leading to the lake she suddenly took to the air and flew back to the water.
After Rosemary’s departure we learned just how much she had enjoyed her stay. To our amazement she became a frequent visitor for the remainder of summer, even bringing different siblings along with her for a visit. We will never forget the sight of Rosemary and her brothers and sisters waddling down the trail to the house from the lake, all in single file, with Rosemary leading the way.
The first time Rosemary came for a visit after her stay was the very next day. The time was just after noon and I was upstairs writing when I was disturbed by a sudden commotion outside consisting of a number of children’s voices and the incessant quacking of a duck. This was no ordinary quacking, it was loud and insistent with hardly time in between for a breath. The voices and the quacking persisted for a time and the thought abruptly came to my mind the children might be teasing the duck. I left my desk and rushed downstairs and outside and immediately spied a group of children sitting in the shade under a tree with a teacher, ostensibly on a field trip. The duck was not near them, but they asked me if I was her owner (they could not help but notice her and had already given her a name). The quacking continued unabated and quickly led me out into the yard, and there, standing in the middle of the road, I found Rosemary. I went to her to lead her out of the road and she followed me onto the porch. I went inside and told my wife Rosemary had come to call and together we eventually coaxed her back to the lake.
Rosemary came often to the house, although not always accompanied by so much fanfare. She certainly established a ritual. She would come to visit, we would spend a little time together on the porch or in the yard, and once she felt fulfilled in her social obligations we would lead her back to the lake. This continued all summer long. At times I caught her flying in, but mostly she would merely waddle from the lake.
Our little feathered visitor became a regular fixture of our days, but sadly it was not to last. After the first short, cold days of autumn settled in Rosemary flew off with her family for the last time, bound for warmer southern climes, but not before stopping to say goodbye with one of her brothers. After her departure we were all hoping to see her again in the spring. She never returned. We miss her still.
The neighbors who met Rosemary could not believe her behavior. Visitors thought she was a domesticated pet (she was quite happy to be petted). There is so much more to say about Rosemary; I kept notes of all her antics. I smile whenever I think of her. Someday she will have a story of her own.
Priscilla P. Squirrelton, was, as one might rightly conclude by her name, a squirrel. The year before Priscilla arrived at our home we were frequented by another squirrel who we never gave a formal English name. We were also too limited in our ability to speak Squirrel to know what his name was in his native tongue. This particular squirrel was very insistent on inquiring into whether or not we carried on our persons any nuts or seeds. He was quite forward and would run directly up to us when spying us out in the yard or arriving home. He was so enthusiastically friendly and outgoing my wife and daughter would turn and run from him. Such behavior did not offend his squirrel sensibilities nor deter him in the least. He rather seemed to enjoy it.
The following spring we did not see our outgoing squirrel again, instead a different little squirrel face began popping meekly over where the front fence turned a corner. She was shy and reserved and it took some time to earn her trust. In contrast to our previous squirrel visitor she seemed exceptionally timid, although after a time we rather concluded she was just exceedingly well-mannered, and it was then we gave her the dignified sounding name Priscilla P. Squirrelton. We never did come to know what the initial P. stood for, but we had a good giggle over it and it stuck. We did, however, manage through offering the seeds (and almonds) of friendship, to coax Priscilla out of her corner. We began to sit outside with her while she gathered the seeds until she became used to our presence and eventually did not mind us being quite close, until finally she approached and gave my shoe a little sniff. Despite having caught the undoubtedly unpleasant scent of my footwear she began to visit every day. Her little head popped over the fence and waited for us when we were arriving home from our travels or sitting down for our meals. Our feeding schedules began to coincide. My wife eventually came to believe Priscilla might be overeating since her shape began to resemble an oversized pear, albeit a very furry one. Her little head appeared utterly misplaced propped atop the expanding puff of fur below. We trimmed her rations and suggested more frequent exercise (though a busy squirrel needs no such advice) until noticing she was not overeating but rather, as we later counted, was eating for six!
I was easily able to recognize her when I saw her scampering about in the vicinity of the house and I eventually noticed she was sometimes on the back fence and sometimes in the front tree. I began to notice her patterns. She had a daily round which began in her nest high up in a tree at the rear of the house. From there she would descend the trunk and run across the fence rung on the side of the house to the large front tree with its limbs arching over the narrow roadway. The tree provided an unbroken pathway to another copse in the neighboring yard across the road. From those tree tops she would hop onto the roof of our neighbor’s house and make her way across to another large tree overspreading the roof. From there she would throw herself into the canopy and run down the trunk. Once on the ground she would bury her gathered treasures round the tree. She also made frequent use of our yard for the same purpose. Priscilla did this nearly every day, usually more than once. Being so well-mannered, she was always very meticulous about how and where things were to be buried (squirrels possess a spatial memory far surpassing our own and can remember the locations of hundreds of their “caches” over the span of years). She patted the ground and overspread leaves or grass or dirt until everything was just so.
I also began to notice as much as I was observing her, she was observing me and my family! There was a reason I spotted her so often on the back fence and in the front tree. The back fence provided a view into our activities in the kitchen (and was also where the fragrant aromas of my wife’s artistry with food wafted outside through the oven vent) and the front tree offered a panoramic prospect of the living room through the large front windows.
I began to experiment with this hypothesis, first by watching her reactions when I moved inside the house, and finally by calling her name through the open window. She was on the back fence the first time I called her, and sure enough she immediately ran down the fence and a moment later was on the front porch, ready to join us for dinner (if she possessed such implements, I would have expected her with all the accoutrements of formal dining). I was taken aback by this discovery, for I was quite ignorant regarding the intelligence of squirrels and of Priscilla in particular. I then turned to calling her when outside and watching her little head pop up from various places around the yard before she would join me on the porch.
When the outside bistro table was moved before the front window with a view to the inside table where we sat down for meals it became Priscilla’s favorite destination when she wished to have our attention, or perhaps when merely desiring to satisfy her own curiosity regarding these tall, fur-less acquaintances and their ability to gather and share such a great quantity of seeds. Morning and evening we would find her sitting on the table, looking in, waiting for us to notice her.
As a result of her observations Priscilla became curious about the front door. It was there we entered and exited the house and in her squirrel imagination she asked herself, “Why can’t I do the same?” First she began climbing the casement, and having mastered this, the next task was the doorknob. She climbed the casement to the height of the doorknob (I was watching her as she did this) and holding onto the casement with one foreleg and two hind legs, she reached out as far as she dared with her little left foreleg for the doorknob. She could not reach the doorknob, let alone seize it or turn it, so she eventually abandoned her efforts to become one of the family living inside the house.
For a time Priscilla disappeared. We did not see her for at least a few weeks until I spotted her on the neighbor’s rooftop in the rear yard. She was not alone. There were five tiny squirrels with her, darting here and there over the rooftop, running to the edge and poking their heads over to view the big, wide world they had so recently come into. Priscilla and her new family remained in the nest and on the rooftop for some time, and then Priscilla began to appear again on the porch. She looked tired, if a squirrel can appear so, and she once sat herself on a fence post and just remained there, unmoving, with one leg extended over the top of a pale as though to prop herself up. After a time she was back to her daily rounds, and then one day she came to the porch with all five of her little ones. She sat herself on a fence post with her little hands clasped together and presided over the scene while the little gathered the seeds. She was instructing them in the fine art of foraging!
Eventually the little ones grew big enough to leave the nest and scatter over the neighborhood, but Priscilla and two of her family remained frequent visitors. The little ones who remained we named Penelope and Edward. Penelope was bold and rambunctious, Edward was more reserved like his mother.
Over time other squirrels (and birds) eventually learned about the seeds we were serving Priscilla and her family. One squirrel was huge and we named him Brutus. Another who frequently accompanied him had a kink in his tail. There were others as well, but they were more difficult to recognize since they did not stay long nor visit with any frequency. Penelope in particular was not fond of the newcomers and, despite her small size, would chase them away. Edward was more apt to wait his turn. Sadly Priscilla’s attendance on the porch gradually faded and then finally ceased altogether. I cannot remember the last time I saw her. As with Rosemary, we still miss her.
Having a pet teaches us how strong our bonds to animals in may become. But coming to know animals living in the wild is somehow different from having a family dog or cat. We worried for them, especially with the presence of predators and the roadways. It is difficult to never know whether they are safe and when we lose contact, to merely be able to wonder where they have gone and what has happened to them. I like to think Rosemary did manage to return to the lake in the spring. Perhaps she had forgotten us, or perhaps she was just too busy carrying out all the responsibilities of being a duck to come for a visit. Nor shall I ever know what happened to Priscilla. I sincerely hope she lived a long, happy, and squirrelly life. One thing is certain, I cannot now look at ducks and squirrels the same way. I know they will each have their own personality with their own quirks and habits. Animals possess their own personality just as we do; anyone who has lived with a pet knows this to be so. It is so strange how a culture could possibly develop having any notion to the contrary. Before I met Rosemary and Priscilla I found it difficult to tell one duck or squirrel from another. After meeting them it was not long before I could, as much by their habits and manner as their appearance. Animals, like people, are all unique. Interaction teaches us this quickly. Our often simplistic assumptions about them, or even about our fellow human beings, swiftly fall away when we come to know them, to be replaced by a tantalizing realization regarding the vast intricacy of the amazing world we all share.