The Squirrel Chronicles: Letters to the city

©Dean Torges/The Bowyer's Edge™


Dear Jan,

It was a gorgeous squirrel day today, the day after a heavy rain, perfect for slip-sliding through the woods on a carpet of wet leaves. Much of the understory is leafless, the ashes and walnuts are bare, and you can see through the woods for some distance. Squirrel activity has grown to about one third on the ground now.

Went three for four this afternoon. Missed the fourth squirrel three times while he rooted about in leaves, so actually I had a three for six day, which is still my best this Fall for multiple kills, and very acceptable for shooting percentages. Comical to see the fourth one jump up and spin around as each arrow buzzed him, and pretty soon I didn't have the heart to concentrate on a killing shot. The easiest shot was the one I didn't take, though.

I was hanging around some white oaks, watching a squirrel off through the woods when I caught motion of a deer heading my way. Slid to a kneeling position beside the tree I'd been leaning against and exchanged the squirrel arrow for a broadhead. The deer turned out to be a button buck, a large one, but not something I was willing to shoot. I've available only one antlerless deer tag and one buck tag for my area. I figured momma would be following behind.

She wasn't. He was alone and came to within 30 feet, whereupon he nibbled some browse while looking through me. He left offering a quartering shot that would have been ideal, and though any deer taken from the ground with a bow and arrow represents an accomplishment, I wanted something larger than that for the freezer. Besides, I have some sympathy for glassy-eyed button bucks. They are probably the least aware and most vulnerable of all creatures in the Fall woods. Even a chipmunk is more sophisticated.

Now a squirrel, there's a worthy quarry. You seldom kill one that doesn't recognize you first. Two of the ones I killed came from the tops of tall hickories where they were cutting. No, I didn't shoot them from there, but I anticipated both shots, which is even more difficult because it involves an exciting blend of savvy and luck to get them within range. Let me explain.

Squirrels would rather not climb down the trunk of a shagbark hickory, probably for the same reason a coon almost never climbs up or down the trunk of a beech tree, even though it is his tree of preference for a den. There's just no purchase for their claws. Both will use an adjacent sapling for the difficult part of their climb. Once in the "second story," a coon can maneuver along the limbs quite handily. The upper half of a hickory is not scaly, so a squirrel can go anywhere there he pleases as well. Sometimes he will come halfway down to eat his nut and provide you a shot.

When you find a squirrel working a tall hickory, you need to read the situation, take your best guess at which tree he will use for his exit, and then position yourself for the shot. It's a gamble. Sometimes he stays in the treetops and leaves through them, too. If he is headed for his den, there is no chance for a shot and no use trying to keep up with him when he does. However, if he decides to leave on the ground, he won't climb down the hickory, but will likely use a skinny tree nearby. A large tree trunk would cut back his field of vision, so it's unlikely he will choose one, but a skinny exit tree allows him to read for danger from any direction as he barber-poles his way to the floor. You appraise the overhead network of branches, look for a long sapling whose top is accessible to him as his avenue to the ground, and then you position yourself for the eventuality. This can mean turning your back on the squirrel and using your ears in one direction and your eyes in another.

When you guess right, you have an opportunity. When he comes away, he will likely have a nut in his mouth even though his belly is full. If he does, he is heading for his den, and he will be moving in that direction without pause.

This requires that you stop him for a shot, pose him on the tree without scaring him off, and at an elevation, preferably, that provides you a good chance to recover your arrow should you miss. I smack my lips together loud enough to get the squirrel's attention, and it usually does the trick. Sometimes I whistle. If all fails, you have the challenge of a running shot.

I guessed right twice today in two different situations, figured their likely routes, posed both squirrels and sent them wings with sharp teeth, on the mark.

When things happen in that kind of natural rhythm, you feel like part of a larger plan. I relate to the squirrel. I've said nothing in these letters if not that. I relate to the great horned owl who waits by the den, too. We have an understanding circulating among us, a heart's blood understanding. You can call it whatever you wish—savvy, experience, even instinct. It allows each of us to sing his part in harmony—each creature, each grub, each blade of grass, each breeze. It is this heart's blood understanding that binds all of creation together, mingles identities, and puts the music in the air.