The Back Yard Awakes on a Winter Morning

It’s 7:15. Too early for my college son, home for the weekend, to be up. It’s also too early for the squirrels, still snuggled together in their nest.

During the night our big maple left long bony shadows on the snow. Now the winter moon, icy-cream against a cobalt sky, is caught in the pin oak branches. In the gloaming, the first cardinal pips at the birdfeeder while the squirrels and Dan sleep.

Soon several other winter regulars arrive. Soft taupe mourning doves whistle down and strut toward breakfast, jerking their heads like common hens. Dark juncos hunker close to the ground, perched on one foot, holding up the other in warm feathers as they feed. Chickadees in formal wear flit and zip, nab and stab, then jet off.

Drab sparrows, bright blue jays, and more cardinals are later joined by striped and rosy house finches. A couple of ebony crows flap into the linden tree where they perch to survey the situation.

High in the maple our fox squirrels live in a substantial penthouse nest with a snowy roof. About 8:00 one climbs down and wades snow to dig for breakfast under the bird feeders.


The rest eventually uncurl and crawl out of their warm nest to dine alfresco in our back yard, their stubby round ears always alert for adventure or trouble. One of the bright-eyed rodents roots in the snow with its nose and paws, scouting out a seed. Holding the morsel in both paws, it sits up in a classic squirrel pose, tail poised in a graceful question mark. With a dusting of snow on its face, it deftly chisels on the kernel several seconds.

One last squirrel, probably “college aged,” finally comes out of its aerie to chew on a branch. Stretching a paw forward, he climbs higher in the maple, then stretches again. He scratches with a hind foot, does some grooming, holds that magnificent tail in his paws to lick and slick it. Scratch, groom, scratch. High in the tree, his bright rusty coat glows in the sunrise. Morning ritual over, he plummets halfway down the truck headfirst, then pauses upside down for a moment, observing the activity at the feeder.

He bounds over to begin with the ear of corn impaled on a corn spike. Choosing a kernel, he jumps down to gnaw. Up, down to chew. Up, down. He buries the last morsel in the snow and pats it. Up, down, nibble. He buries another. Then he stretches up to the heated birdbath for a long guzzle, his nutmeg and grey coat full, sleek, and healthy.

The birdfeeder hanging from the roof will have to be moved. In spite of the trash can lid strapped to the top of it, one of the squirrels has figured out how to dangle from his back paws, reach to the outside of the lid, and some how squirm under for the lusted-after seeds. He leaps off when I tap on the window, but he’ll be back.

A squirrel chase breaks out around the trunk of the maple. One scampers up and over the chain-link fence into the neighbor’s yard, another chases off toward the orchard, its tail undulating gracefully.

Photo by Doug Selsor

A large one perches on a branch in the tree and grooms in the sun. Then he takes a catnap, eyes barely open, sitting like a Sumo wrestler, paws over his heart, his droll mouth nibbling once in a while, a skiff of snow on his face.

Another one gathers half a dozen pin oak leaves in his mouth, bounces gracefully to the maple, and clambers up to fortify the nest. One leaf floats back to the ground.

Well, Dan is up now. I fill him in on what our critters have been doing while he was still abed.

We watch the large squirrel head back down, flop its fluffy tail, repeat the leaf gathering and tucking, then take a little breather.

I wonder aloud, thinking of Jane Goodall, whether I could learn to tell our squirrels apart.

Dan mutters that maybe his mother needs to get a life.

We laugh, but he had slept right through all the early action in our winter back yard.

(Published 1997 in a couple of local newspapers.)


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