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Of Squirrels and Rabbits
and How They Got That Way

Bill Meredith

"The cure for boredom is curiosity.
There is no cure for curiosity."
Ö Dorothy Parker.

(Feb, 2011) We got up one morning last week to be greeted by about three inches of new snow. It was warm and smelled like coffee in the kitchen, but outside it was crisp and cold; the sun was shining and everything looked clean and pure, the way it did when all the world and love were young. I like snow, at least for a while when itís new. I donít like having to drive in it, but I donít mind shoveling it; clearing it off the sidewalk and driveway gives me a sense of satisfaction, as if Iím making a contribution to the universe. My friends in the field of physics call disorder entropy, and they say it is increasing in the universe. Iím aware that a lot of this excess entropy is in my wifeís shoe collection in our closets and under the bed; I canít do anything about that, but when I produce a clean, orderly sidewalk I feel like Iíve made a small contribution toward solving the problem.

Looking at snow is like talking to a log; it tells you about its past. When I went out to get the paper and fill the bird feeders I saw that weíd had visitors during the night. Someoneís dog had run through the flowerbed, and a feral cat had searched the front porch and shrubbery for sleeping birds; but most of the tracks were from rabbits and squirrels. Rabbit tracks were the first marks I learned to recognize in the snow when I was 3 or 4; they look like a pair of exclamation points lying side by side where the large hind legs hit the snow in front of the small front paws. Winter days are short and rabbits are out mostly at night, so I seldom see them, but the tracks told me there were several of them around. Squirrels are another matter; not only had they left their tracks, but they were still around in person.

Rabbits look cute and cuddly, but they arenít very smart and, except when itís mating season, they donít do much except eat and run from one hiding place to another. Squirrels are a different matter; they have personality, curiosity and a sense of devilment. The other day I saw one run up a telephone pole and sit on top of it, higher than any of the surrounding housetops, for no possible reason except to twitch his tail back and forth to show all the other squirrels that he was king of the hill. And they enjoy a challenge. Last fall when I put out the bird feeder I made a squirrel shield from a piece of sheet metal which tips over and dumps them off if they try to climb up the pole to get sunflower seeds. They played on it for a while, like kids on a new seesaw in the park, but when they really got hungry they simply climbed a nearby tree and jumped onto the feeder instead of climbing up the pole. I moved the pole away from the tree and went back inside to enjoy my sense of superior brainpower; the alpha squirrel swaggered over to the feeder, sat up on his haunches to survey the situation, and simply jumped vertically from the ground to the feeder. I had neglected to look up the record for standing high-jumps by squirrels; I still donít know what it is, but I know itís over four feet.

My first course in science was in third grade. I liked it because there were a lot of big words to learn and show off with; I remember coming home one day and proudly announcing that animals with two big front teeth, like rabbits and squirrels, were called Rodents. That turned out to be one of the many things I learned from books that were wrong. Rabbits are lagomorphs, not rodents, because they have two small teeth behind the big ones. I donít know why the author of the book didnít know thisÖ maybe he was influenced by the Bugs Bunny cartoons, which started about that time, or perhaps he decided lagomorph is too big a word for third gradersÖ but I carried that misinformation all the way to college before I was disabused of it. Actually, it involves an ancient misconception. Folklore of many cultures from the Cherokee Indians to Uncle Remus, includes stories of how rabbits developed from squirrels.

According to one of my storybooks when I was little, once upon a time rabbits and squirrels both had short ears and long tails; the only difference was that squirrels lived in trees and ate nuts, and rabbits lived on the ground and ate grass. One summer it was hot and dry, and the rabbit ate all of the grass on his side of the river. Nuts were getting scarce too, so the rabbit and the squirrel went down to the river and looked across. They saw lots of grass and nuts on the other side, but the river was deep and neither of them could swim. They persuaded a passing crocodile to carry them across on its back, and when they got to the other side, the squirrel jumped to safety on the bank; but when the rabbit tried to follow, the crocodile grabbed his tail and started to swallow him. Trying to help, the squirrel grabbed the rabbit by the ears and a tug of war ensued. Eventually the rabbitís tail was bitten off by the crocodile and he got away, but his ears had been stretched far beyond their original length, and rabbits have had short tails and long ears ever since.

Ecologists agree that similarities between rabbits and squirrels may be the result of a common ancestor some 50 million years ago, but their differences are the result of adapting to different ecological niches during the eons of time since then. The ancestral rabbits probably lived in hot, dry climates; their big ears were an adaptation for removing excess body heat (a mechanism also used by elephants and desert foxes). In that habitat, they needed to be alert to detect predators and fast to avoid them, but problem-solving was not a high priority for their survival. Squirrels, on the other hand, long ago adapted to living in trees; thus their survival depends not only on alertness and speed, but also on coordination, balance (for which the tail is used) and acrobatic ability. Also, in order to find food they have to investigate every nook and cranny where nuts, seeds and bird eggs might be found. This requires curiosity and problem-solving. Thus when they become a nuisance around my bird feeder they are simply doing what enabled their ancestors to survive all these years.

As I write, the clock is moving toward midnight, and it is starting to snow again. When I get up tomorrow, it will be beautiful; the yard will be full of tracks, the flowering plum tree by the driveway will be full of cardinals, chickadees, titmice and finches, and there will be a squirrel sitting on the feeder, consuming the last of the sunflower seeds. The BB-gun I got for my 7th birthday is behind the door; I will take it out on the porch and blast away at him. The BB will fly wearily through the air and hit the ground three feet this side of the feeder, and the squirrel will hop to the ground and saunter off, laughing maniacally for the benefit of his friends. My wife will yell at me for letting cold air into the foyer; I will reply that I put the Fear of God into the squirrel this time, and return to coffee and the morning paper. It will be a day like every other day; the squirrel will come back and we will watch each other, sharing our mutual curiosity. Thank goodness, there is no cure for it.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith