A squirrel stares down at you from a high perch, chirping loudly, sounding the alarm. If a squirrel could form words, what words would they be? I always imagine them swearing at me. I realize I’m being anthropomorphic, but something about squirrel behavior communicates a complete lack of respect for our human sense of dignity and superiority. Henry got a taste of this when squirrels moved in under his house.
“At the approach of spring the red squirrels got under my house, two at a time, directly under my feet as I sat reading or writing, and kept up the queerest chuckling and chirruping and vocal pirouetting and gurgling sounds that ever were heard; and when I stamped they only chirruped the louder, as if past all fear and respect in their mad pranks, defying humanity to stop them. No, you don’t — chickaree — chickaree. They were wholly deaf to my arguments, or failed to perceive their force, and fell into a strain of invective that was irresistible.”
(His earlier colorful description of squirrel behavior is here.)
Thoreau had been in the woods long enough — and had lived gently enough — that animals trusted him:
“They [titmice, a small gray and white songbird] were so familiar that at length one alighted on an armful of wood which I was carrying in, and pecked at the sticks without fear. I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn. The squirrels also grew at last to be quite familiar, and occasionally stepped upon my shoe, when that was the nearest way.” Continue reading →
We’ve all seen it, but Thoreau provides one of the best descriptions of squirrel behavior that I’ve read. During the winter he left out ears of unripened sweet corn for them. I’ve added paragraph breaks to make it easier to read on the screen:
Eastern gray squirrel. Wikimedia Commons
“One would approach at first warily through the shrub oaks, running over the snow-crust by fits and starts like a leaf blown by the wind, now a few paces this way, with wonderful speed and waste of energy, making inconceivable haste with his “trotters,” as if it were for a wager, and now as many paces that way, but never getting on more than half a rod at a time; and then suddenly pausing with a ludicrous expression and a gratuitous somerset, as if all the eyes in the universe were eyed on him — for all the motions of a squirrel, even in the most solitary recesses of the forest, imply spectators as much as those of a dancing girl — wasting more time in delay and circumspection than would have sufficed to walk the whole distance — I never saw one walk — and then suddenly, before you could say Jack Robinson, he would be in the top of a young pitch pine, winding up his clock and chiding all imaginary spectators, soliloquizing and talking to all the universe at the same time — for no reason that I could ever detect, or he himself was aware of, I suspect. Continue reading →
“This was his looning — perhaps the wildest sound that is ever heard here, making the woods ring far and wide.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Brute Neighbors,” Walden
I don’t live in loon country, but the above video from New Hampshire features good loon audio (but jumpy video, unfortunately).
Thoreau writes of chasing a loon in his boat. The loon kept diving to get away from him, then popping up out of the water in unexpected places. Henry kept rowing for him, trying to guess where he would next appear, but without ever reaching him. The short video below, shot by some scuba divers, shows what wonderful divers loons are: Continue reading →
“It is remarkable how many creatures live wild and free though secret in the woods, and still sustain themselves in the neighborhood of towns, suspected by hunters only.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Brute Neighbors,” Walden
It bears repeating that Walden Pond was not a wilderness. A mile-and-a-half from town, it was bordered by a railroad and frequented by woodcutters and visitors from town, and was less thickly wooded than it is today. But it was rich with wildlife for Henry to enjoy. Continue reading →