Saturday, January 29, 2011

On a trip to Edmonton in the early fall I was able to watch a small red squirrel interact with the magpies. He lives in the spruce across from the window of the desk where I work but claims the entire area including the bushes in front of the window and the two trees down the slope. I first noticed him when he shot up the near tree a couple of times after a pair of magpies.  One flew to the top the other moved to a spot where he could not be easily reached.  The squirrel returned to the ground then crept closer it would disappear, then it's head would pop up here and there like a character in a Looney Tunes cartoon finally it rushed up the second tree and zipped along a branch to reach the magpie who finally gave up and flew off.

I am familiar with the territorial behavior of red squirrels, although they are rare in the city now having been replaced by black squirrels.  Many years ago one moved into a spruce tree next to the window of our apartment's kitchen it would hang from the screen and chatter at us if we moved about in the room. This lasted until a neighbour chained a German Shepard to the tree hopefully it simply moved.

Another time we were in an archaeological field camp, the outhouse was off by itself in a grove of spruce with a red squirrel chattering at you the entire way. The outhouse had a corrugated plastic roof, once you were sitting there having a quiet moment the squirrel would launch a spruce cone from 20 to 30 feet up the tree the noise was incredible, like a rifle shot.  It also crept into our tent trailer at night and boogied under the kitchen sink, a great place to store cones. A handful of black pepper ended that but the outhouse remained an experience.

I returned to Edmonton to work this winter and the squirrel magpie drama continued.  This time there had been several enormous snowfalls the magpie would land on a tree next to the next the spruce the squirrel would attack.  Since the layers of snow where so deep he often tunneled under neath, the squirrel used a different strategy.  It launched itself from the tree, sometimes from 5 or 6 feet up trying to intersect the magpie in the tree or in the air, upon missing it would break thru the crust and disappear. Twice I saw the magpie struggle into the air and then saw something fall away and the squirrel reappear.  I do not know whom latched onto to who but the magpie only made it a few inches into the air. The number of magpies increased the snow continued and the "game" ended. 

But the great and flashing magpie
He flies as artists might.

A magpie in Picardy
Told me secret things—
Of the music in white feathers,
And the sunlight that sings
And dances in deep shadows—
He told me with his wings.
                                                    Magpies in Picardy
                                                                                 T.P. Cameron Wilson

The rest of this poem and more information on
it's author can be found at Tim Kendall's blog on war poets.

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