Pawn to Foxy II
[by Nick Jans]
IN THE TWILIT SILENCE OF 5 A.M. at my Klehini valley homestead, I’m jarred awake by a fierce, rattling cry. I don’t have to open my eyes to picture the source, perched at the porch railing, twenty feet from my bed: His Royal Squirrelness, Foxy II. Teeth bared, tail curled over his back, his entire body quivers in outrage as he surveys his domain and utters a bitter lament. Interlopers, pretenders to the throne, and assassins lurk everywhere. And to make matters worse, I, his dawdling servant, have failed to replenish the royal banquet table.
I know there will be no peace until I make matters right. Sighing, I rise from bed to scatter a few peanuts and sun-flower seeds on the empty feeding board. Of course, I’m roundly scolded for my trouble—indignant chirring and glaring from a nearby tree—but at last, Foxy returns and hunkers down to gather what’s rightfully his. A fragile quiet settles over his forested kingdom.
Of all mammal species inhabiting the subcontinental sweep of Alaska, red squirrels are among the most opinionated and territorial—and ounce for ounce, I reckon the most surly. Good thing they don’t grow to the size of grizzlies. From the far edges of the great Southeast rain forests, through the seemingly limitless taiga of the Interior, to a hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, if there’s a patch of cone-bearing spruce, chances are there’s a red squirrel perched on a limb, cussing you out.
But, hey, don’t take it personally. They complain about everyone and everything invading their space, from moose to woodpeckers. Unlike their much larger, more sociable gray cousins to the south, red squirrels are, by necessity, hard-core loners. They carve out a territory that may be as little as fifty or hundreds of yards in diameter, depending on the richness of the habitat and the squirrel’s ability to defend it. Such a kingdom generally includes several nests, favored perches, food sources, and caches connected by a network of trails, both on the ground and tree to tree.
The centerpiece of a red squirrel’s domain is a midden: a mound of harvested evergreen cones and gnawed shards that may sprawl up to a dozen feet in diameter and to a depth of two feet, and be decades, even centuries old. If a squirrel is to survive, it must build, conquer, or inherit such a structure. A royal midden lies at the base of an old-growth tree, and features a maze of multi-chambered tunnels into the tree’s roots, with at least one alternate exit; but the corner of an old shed or a burrow under a fallen tree will do if it must.
The midden serves as fortified castle, throne room, and storehouse. A squirrel spends its summer into autumn tirelessly gathering and piling food for lean times—not only thousands of cones heaped on the midden, but also seeds, carefully dried mushrooms, berries, and edible plants, often sorted and stashed in neat piles underground. It also gathers bits of insulating, cushioning fluff to fashion a royal bedchamber. Like a medieval dragon, a red squirrel dozes, surrounded by his heaped treasure, guarding it as if his life depended on it—which it does. The dark, cold months of winter stretch on, and losing your midden amounts to a death sentence.
Any incursion into a red squirrel’s territory will be met first by that trademark rattling war cry, followed by a rhythmic, profane chipping that escalates into foot-stamping, dashing about from branch to branch, and other intimidating displays. A bear or caribou will of course ignore all the hoo-ha and pass on. Unfortunately, since Foxy and I inhabited the same real estate, leaving wasn’t an option for either of us. And good luck convincing him that I held the deed and was paying the mortgage. Whose midden was it, after all?
If the invader, however, is another squirrel and doesn’t take heed, there’s going to be war. Generally it starts and ends with a madcap chase, with the midden ruler the winner. But red squirrels have needle-sharp claws and teeth, and a confrontation between evenly matched squirrels may escalate into brawls that end with an older squirrel being deposed. Regardless of the outcome, there will be more raids and probes, especially if the kingdom is rich—say, one that includes not only a midden, but also a regularly replenished feeder, like mine.
Always, too, assassins prowl. Hawks and owls specializing in squirrels lurk in the forest canopy; coyotes, wolves, marten, and mink, among others, are always on the alert for a tasty morsel. According to one study, only 20 percent of all red squirrels survive their first year. The second and third years are their peak; and after that, the odds decline. A rare handful (usually females) may live to be five or more.
I’ve known Foxy II, my current resident yard squirrel and frenemy, for two years. He first appeared in late summer of 2014, a young upstart with a brighter-than-usual orange-red cast to his back and tail that inspired his name. His predecessor was an equally imperious female with a similarly tinted coat whom my wife, Sherrie, and I dubbed Foxy (the First, as it turned out). Foxy I was heavy with babies that May, then thin, nursing, and ravenous; and after a couple of months, she abruptly abandoned her palatial midden beneath a Sitka spruce, 20 yards from our steps—to be immediately replaced by Foxy II.
Had Foxy I been killed or deposed? Nope. She’d abdicated her throne and left it to her son—a documented behavior known as midden bequeathal. She’d risked her own life so that the most promising of her litter would have the best possible chance of survival. The strategy makes sense in a game of thrones, where carrying on the royal lineage is the whole point.
So there sits Foxy II on my porch railing each morning, king of all he surveys. The question is, how long? His defiant cry echoes in the silence.
Nick Jans has been writing for Alaska for 28 years. His new book, The Giant’s Hand, is available at nickjans.com.