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Squirrels and Wild Cats - Harper's




The most graceful of all the little inhabitants of the forest is the squirrel. It is to be found in nearly every country, and is always the same merry, frisky little creature. The general name for the great squirrel family is Sciurus, a compound of two pretty Greek words signifying shadow and tail, the beautiful bushy tail being a universal family characteristic. Of the many varieties found in our Northern woods the most common of all is the little chipmunk, a beautiful creature of brownish-gray, with stripes of black and yellow on its back, and a snowy white throat. It is the only burrower of the family. Choosing some sheltered place under a stone wall or a clump of bushes, it digs a hole which often descends perpendicularly for a yard or more before branching off into the winding galleries and snug little apartments, some of which serve as store-houses where nuts, corn, and seeds of different kinds are hoarded away for its winter supplies. The little corner of the burrow used as a nest is carefully and warmly lined with dry leaves and grass, and here the tiny squirrel slumbers during the cold winter months. Chipmunks are very plentiful in the country, and may be seen any sunny day scampering along the stone walls, or up and down the trunks of nut trees, their little cheeks, if it is in the autumn, puffed out round with nuts, which they are carrying to their winter store-house.

The larger varieties of squirrels, which make their nest in trees, are the red squirrel, often found in pine woods, as it is very fond of the cones of pine and fir trees; the gray squirrel, a magnificent fellow, with such a voracious appetite that it is said one squirrel alone will strip a whole nut tree; and the black squirrel, a handsome, glossy creature, which is so hated by its gray brothers that both are never found together in the same nutting grounds. As the gray are the most numerous, at least in this part of the country, they generally succeed in driving away the black members of the family, so that they are not very often seen.

The little flying-squirrels, the dearest little creatures for pets, are natives of the Rocky Mountains, but are found in all parts of the United States. They are very lazy, and sleep nearly all day, coming out at twilight for a merry frolic, leaping, flying, or scampering at pleasure among the tree-tops. They generally make their nest in some hollow trunk, where it is very difficult to find them.

The nest of a gray or red squirrel is a wonderful piece of architecture. It is usually built in the crotch of some large branch, near or directly against the main trunk of the tree. The spherical-shaped exterior is a mass of interwoven twigs, so carefully placed as to afford ample protection against rain or snow; leaves and grasses are stuffed inside, while the little bed where the squirrel nestles and takes its nap is of the softest and driest moss. In this pretty snuggery five or six little squirrels are born early in the warm weather. The mother is very watchful and very affectionate. If any wicked boys disturb her, or a natural enemy, some beast or bird of prey, comes near, she takes her little ones in her mouth, like a cat with its kittens, and hastily carries them to a more secure hiding-place. The parent squirrels never go away from the nest, but play and jump about on the branches near by, until the little ones are strong enough to accompany them, when the whole family may be seen springing from tree to tree, or scampering up and down the tall trunks, waving their beautiful tails, and breaking the silence of the woods with their merry chattering. They are wonderful jumpers, and can spring from the highest branches to the ground without harm. They are not runners, but can jump so nimbly through the grass and dried leaves that it is impossible to catch them.

The favorite food of the squirrel is acorns, nuts, and seeds and grain of all kinds, and it will sometimes nibble leaf-buds and tender shoots of young trees in the spring. Its teeth are so sharp and strong that it will gnaw the hardest nutshell. Nothing is prettier than to see this graceful creature sitting upright, its beautiful tail curled over its back, gnawing at a nut which it skillfully holds in its fore-paws. As it is not afraid unless one approaches too near, when it whisks out of sight in a twinkling, its habits may be easily studied.

It is a very provident little animal, and lays up large stores of nuts for its winter food. As those which live in trees have no store-house like that of the chipmunk, they deposit their hoard in hollow trunks or under heaps of dried leaves. Nothing is more common than to find little stores of nuts in a snug corner in hickory woods, carefully packed together by these cunning creatures.

Squirrels make pretty pets, and when captured young can be tamed, and often become very affectionate. A young squirrel may be allowed to run about the room, and it will often be found curled up fast asleep in mamma's work-basket, or papa's pocket, or some other funny hiding-place. As it grows older it becomes more mischievous, and must be kept in a cage, or books, furniture, and everything in the room will bear the marks of its sharp little teeth. It belongs to the order Rodentia, or gnawing animals, and if kept in confinement, must be given a plenty of hard-shelled nuts to use its teeth on. Its cage should also be kept very clean, for the squirrel is the neatest little beast imaginable, and spends much time at its toilet.

It is sad to think that this innocent, playful denizen of the woodlands should have many and deadly enemies. Even in the forests of inhabited regions, from which wild beasts have been driven, hawks and owls are ever on the watch to pounce upon it; and in the wild woods, especially in cold countries, where the squirrels are most plentiful, there are many enemies—pine-martens, which climb trees and spring from branch to branch almost as nimbly as the poor little squirrel they persecute, and the terrible wild-cat, which seeks its unsuspecting prey by night, or in the twilight, when the squirrels are gambolling merrily among the leafy branches before cuddling to sleep in their little nests. With sly caution the wild-cat creeps noiselessly through the underbrush, and with one savage spring it destroys the peace of some poor little squirrel family.

Wild-cats, although they belong to the same great family as the quiet little pussy which likes to sleep on the hearth-rug, are considered by naturalists to be an entirely different species. They are much larger than the domestic cat, and have a short, stubbed, and very bushy tail. They are terrible enemies of birds and all the small inhabitants of the forest, and will often attack animals larger than themselves. They pass most of the day stretched out upon some large limb of a tree, sleeping, after the fashion of cats, with one glistening eye always on the watch for prey. At night they descend, and creep through the underbrush, searching for food. They are very skillful at fishing, and are often found near large ponds, where they watch not only for fish, but for all kinds of water-birds which haunt the surrounding marshes.

They seldom attack men unless enraged or brought to bay. Woe to the hunter who fires a careless shot, for the angry beast springs at him with great fury, and inflicts fearful and sometimes even fatal wounds with its sharp claws. It has no fear of dogs, and will pounce upon them, sometimes killing them before the hunter can come to the rescue. Tschudi, the Swiss naturalist, tells of a wounded wild-cat, which, lying on its back, fought successfully with three large dogs, holding one fast in its teeth, while with its claws it dealt powerful blows to the other two, with singular instinct aiming at their eyes, until the hunter, by a skillful shot, put an end to the conflict, killing the ferocious beast, and relieving the poor dogs, which were nearly exhausted.