Nutty for Squirrels

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Do you have a nut for me?

Squirrels tend to drive some people nuts, but I’m nutty about them. Excuse the bad pun, but as a wildlife rehabilitator, I often get teased by friends who complain about these “furry rodents” that raid bird feeders and gardens and occasionally cause even more trouble for homeowners. I paid very little attention to squirrels myself until I started volunteering (at AWARE Wildlife Center) to help care for animals who have been injured or orphaned. Highly adapted to human environments, squirrels often get in harm’s way. Perhaps the saddest cases are animals who have been kidnapped and kept for a while (because they would make “cute pets”) and are later surrendered to us when the animal develops health problems or becomes too much to handle. Sometimes, a whole nest of squirrels arrives after their home is destroyed by tree pruning, while other times people bring us youngsters that have fallen from the nest and gotten left behind or have been caught by a pet. (Cat bites, especially, can be fatal to wildlife). Once in a while, we get a squirrel that has been dropped by a hawk, and one time a squirrel actually was brought in with its attacker after the squirrel’s “posse” attacked the hawk on the ground). Whenever possible, we advise people to attempt to re-nest babies — if not in the original nest, then in a homemade nest placed as close to the original nest as possible. You might be surprised to learn that baby squirrels can squall quite loudly when they are hurt or need attention, so their mother will find them. When the re-nesting fails, the squirrels usually end up in our care.

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AWARE takes in hundreds of baby squirrels every year.

Raising a baby squirrel is pretty involved. Like all baby mammals, squirrels have special nutrition requirements, and they need to be bottle-fed in a way that prevents them from aspirating (taking fluid into their lungs). When they are very young, they require feedings every 2-4 hours throughout the day, much like a human baby! After feedings, they must be stimulated to go to the bathroom, which their mother would do in the wild by licking them (and we do with a warm, wet Q-tip!). Because infant mammals can’t thermo-regulate, they also need to be kept warm until they are fully furred. I’ll spare you too many details, but needless to say, the task of rehabilitating any mammal requires commitment, patience, and a willingness to do unpleasant, dirty jobs. The hardest part of raising any animal, though, is not letting oneself get too attached. In order to live the best life, wild animals need to stay wild.

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It’s hard not to feel compassion for such a helpless creature.

Having raised tiny, furless squirrels until the time of their release, I have a different perspective on these animals than most people. It’s hard not to feel genuine compassion for a small, helpless creature fighting for life, and as you begin to care for individual animals, you begin to care for the species as a whole. Curious and intelligent, squirrels constantly amuse and delight me with their antics and cute expressions. They’re remarkable acrobats, too! Sleepy, snuggly, and tame during their first months of life, they soon become the busy, chattering, frenetic animals we see out our window, playing their vital part in the ecosystem by spreading seeds and providing food for other animals. If we pay attention, though, we may catch one stretched out in repose on a warm summer’s day or one tightly balled up in its tail against the winter’s chill.

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Taking a break…

Watching squirrels I have raised from infancy step out into the big, wild world a few months later to live out their lives is always thrilling and joyful. Some of “my” babies remember me and continue to visit my porch from time to time. If I have treats to offer, they’ll come right up to say hello, but if no nuts are forthcoming, they continue on their way caring nothing for me, as it should be. I’m glad just to see them scrambling through the trees, eating my acorns, and being squirrels. If they steal a tomato and raid my bird feeder from time to time, so be it. These things are small compared to the delight they bring.

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First taste of freedom…

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New Life for Broken Dishes

Broken china and ceramics have several uses. An internet search will show you how to make jewelry, wreaths, and mosaic projects for furniture, mirrors, paving stones, etc. When my daughter broke a hand-colored bank, we used the pieces to line our flower pots (to keep the cats from scratching in them, but they look pretty too!). The pieces could also be used for drainage at the bottom of a pot. Before you throw broken items away, find out what you can do with them!

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What creative uses can you think of for broken pottery and china? Please share!

My Eco-centric Evolution

I’ve always liked nature and being outside. I was lucky to have a lot of opportunities to enjoy outdoor recreation while growing up (hiking, skiing, team sports, camping, kayaking), and I still get out and stay active. My college years at the University of Vermont instilled a strong sense of environmental responsibility in me, but my career path (teaching) didn’t lead me outdoors. While all of these experiences helped to shape me, I ultimately credit an injured baby chipmunk for starting me on my journey to a living a life more connected with nature.

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A catalyst…

About four years ago in my late thirties, I was having an early “mid-life crisis” of sorts. Like many people, I was feeling like my best years and opportunities were behind me. A homemaker with a devoted, hard-working husband who regularly travels for work, I was filling my time with meeting the demands of the household, chairing PTA fundraisers at my children’s schools, volunteering at a cat shelter, and other activities. My children, then six and eight, were both in school full-time, but I was reluctant to return to a demanding career teaching high school English. Lacking a satisfying professional or creative outlet, I was most definitely feeling lost and depressed.

One afternoon, one of our indoor cats slipped outside when one of the kids left the porch door open. I only noticed the cat had escaped when motion out the window caught my eye and I turned to see her batting a ball of fur. The tiny chipmunk seemed stunned, but unscathed when I raced out and rescued it from the cat, but as night was falling, I decided to keep it safe overnight to make certain it was okay. In the morning, the chipmunk was most definitely NOT okay (cat saliva is toxic), so I quickly searched the internet for a wildlife rescue. I stumbled upon Atlanta Wild Animal Rescue Effort (AWARE) and called to ask if they’d take the chipmunk. Driving to the center with the suffering creature on my lap, I decided I’d ask to volunteer and learn how to rehabilitate wildlife myself, if they would have me. Animals have always been an important part of my life, and I thought learning to work with wildlife might lift me out of the funk I’d been in.

Finding AWARE changed my life. Caring for wildlife that has been injured or orphaned by human activity makes me feel like I’m playing a small role in restoring the balance between people and wildlife. In addition, developing and presenting education programs about wildlife and conservation while working with our non-releasable wildlife ambassadors (raptors, bobcats, skunks, crows, an opossum, a snake, etc.) has taught me a tremendous amount about animals, ecology, and the environment. My experiences at AWARE have motivated me to earn my wildlife rehabilitator’s license and to seek knowledge in related fields. Rehabilitating birds, for example, compelled me to attend a weekend of workshops to learn more about songbirds and raptors. That weekend made an avid birder out of me. I’ve since joined my local Audubon chapter on several bird walks in my area. Last year, I learned to identify over 150 new bird species, and my yard list (number of species seen) is up to 45!                      

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Teaching high school students about wildlife

Going beyond birds and mammals, the Master Naturalist class I recently completed brought to light the interconnectedness of all living things. During one class, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Haskell spoke about The Forest Unseen, which details the year he spent observing a one-meter patch of forest near his Tennessee home. Our instructor then challenged us to spend time sitting quietly in our own backyards and noting our impressions every day for a week. If a tiny patch of forest could inspire a prize-winning book about the wonders of nature, I was determined to find inspiration in my yard too! I discovered, indeed, that nature constantly offers up gifts if we stop and pay attention — the music of birdsong filling the air, the shade of a leafy canopy, the amusing antics of squirrels, the allure of the moon. Although I’d never thought my small suburban yard was particularly special, I gained a new appreciation for it that week. We can all tune in to the natural world as a source of comfort, inspiration, amazement, reflection, happiness, humor, energy, calm… We need only to step outside, or even just look out the window, and look closely at our surroundings.

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Squirrels can be very amusing.

So this is my mission — to be aware of the wonders found right outside my door and to do my part to take care of them. Hopefully, others will be inspired to do the same. The Senegalese poet Baba Djoum wisely said, “In the end, we conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” The more I learn, the more my family tries to live responsibly and healthfully in a way that honors and conserves our planet. My family has adapted to my quirks – like pulling recyclable items out of trash cans and making our own toothpaste – and we’ve given up straws, juice boxes, new plastic bags, and other disposable items (more on these things to come!). We are FAR from perfect, but we are making a start. If we can inspire even a few people, and they inspire a few others, and so on, we will begin to see a significant change. We can do it! Hope you’ll join me in leading an eco-centric life!