Photo Prose: Observations From The Artist
By Gary Rabenko
It was cold today. 9:37 a.m. I had the window closed and was headed into the shower. But the Vizio 47-inch monitor in my newly arranged room told me Sweetie was approaching. I rushed to the window and hurriedly rotated the blinds so she would see me. It did not scare her, and she responded with a flick of her bushy tail. She looked up as I reached for the window’s latches. She knows that means she will soon have access to some good food. Watching her stretch to see my hands better, as if trying to figure it out, I simultaneously rotated the two latches counterclockwise to free the lower sash from the upper one. Yes, it only took a moment, but for a creature as fast as a squirrel, that is a long time. Truth be told, I did it slowly. Yet she stayed with it all the while, watching with riveting enthusiasm and body language.
Then I raised the blinds. “Oh, this is getting exciting,” she said in her own counterclockwise spin that she does to buy time and consider things. Then I raised the lower sash. Too high for this cold morning, but I felt like being generous to a friend, making her entrance easier. No insulated baffle with one or two holes for her today, at least not right now. Moving away, I removed from the soft recliner the silver insulated baffle that I normally keep in the window on wintery days. When I am home, it allows Sweetie and her “people” access, but shields the un-furred human (me) from the cold as much as possible. But today she caught me early. I had not yet opened for business this morning. She came and got my attention. She “knocked on the door.” She deserved special treatment.
It’s been emotionally tough for me the last few months. I had been keeping detailed daily diaries but had lately stopped. Sweetie delivered her third litter of five healthy kittens. That was sometime in August, after a 44-day gestation period. She had to cope with stress from the locals’ decision to replace a roof and siding, and my decision to climb her tree and not only clean out the nest box I had provided a year earlier, but to surprise her with a second neighboring nest box that I hoped she would share with her growing family or at least be available for her to rotate—like a second summer or winter home, as she might choose.
I did not know if she would be permanently scared away by such overt and seemingly hostile action by the main predator species on this planet. But I took a chance that, taking all things into account, she would enjoy the new changes.
As I had profiled her the past three years (we knew each other from back in her juvenile days), she persevered. At the time I did not realize she was pregnant. Unlike in prior deliveries where I had been monitoring her and knew to the day when she would deliver, this season had crept up on me. I did not even think she might be in a family way. I had embarked on some major home repairs and grounds cleaning. For a week I had thought that amidst all the scaffolding and carpenters, she fled to calmer trees. I was not happy. It was a sad few days. She had continued to visit at least once each day during the full hour I required workers to stop for a long lunch break and to make sure to do so on the other side of the house, so at least Sweetie could come for water and hopefully some lunch too. And each day, nearly 20 minutes after the hammering stopped and presumably just when the humans were eating their lunch, little Sweetie, the one-pound wonder, would climb up the ramp—which had to be moved for the workers to approach their scaffolding, but which I made sure to restore as soon as their lunch break began. She came in and had some food and drink. But then where would she go?
I was stumped! She was not residing in the wooden home I had built for her. My cameras made that clear.
• • •
After a few days, I found her. Late in the afternoon, using binoculars my father had left me, I spied her . . . high, high, high up near the topmost tip of this 60-foot tree. She was watching all of us. On that sweltering hot summer day in August, temporarily displaced from the home she knew, there she was. A favorite meal to the big birds of prey like black hawks, she was not only biding her time to safely come down amidst the world’s most feared of predators—humans—but also protecting and nurturing the five little ones that she was just about to deliver!
Unlike rats, squirrels have one or two litters a year at most. They rarely have offspring in their first year, which is another major departure from the rats they often are compared to. And they are clean—grooming themselves fastidiously and preferring grains, nuts, seeds, and plants with the occasional insect over their meat-eating cousins. But enough of this science for now.
Sweetie eventually delivered five healthy but helpless little squirrels. And after five or six weeks of private time, after all the construction ended, they would eventually be introduced to the world and invariably to me. But this is not exactly where she and I agree on how things should work.
Today has so far been relatively calm. Sweetie accepted my invitation to enter, and came in from the cold. I had already made sure to replace the frozen water in the outside water dish. But food was different. For that, she would have to enter. Her timing was perfect today.
• • •
It used to be like this. Then as the days shortened, maybe my timing changed, maybe my business hours did not coincide with her visiting hours. She would still try to visit me each day, but it was not like the clockwork it had been often in our relationship, where I could practically set my watch to her visit—the same minute each day!
Anyway, the room is very different now. On Super Bowl Sunday, I had decided to substantially reconfigure the furniture. The only thing still the same is the first 20 steps she takes coming inside. Of course her steps are much smaller than my steps. For me it would be about 20 inches.
After that, things are just different. And the TV that she got used to watching . . . well, that is a whole other story—maybe I can get into that another day.
But for now, let me end by saying it was nice seeing this wild beast, this mother, grandmother, daughter, granddaughter, and great grand-daughter to others I know, enjoying a relatively calm, unthreatened moment sitting on my knee. She had to deal with a number of newly created obstacles to find me in this repositioned room. She had to make sure nothing dangerous was lurking under the recliner, or behind the sofa, and is not quite sure yet exactly what might be in all those corners. Tripods seem to be in different places, and my desk that she has known for years now has a pile of papers on the other side.
But for the half hour she was here, and certainly all the time on my right knee, she would not have to worry about the many cats in the neighborhood or today’s outdoor temperature of 20 degrees.
Here it is 74 degrees. I like it toasty. And I like that a little wild creature, one of millions who could live 20 years but 80% of whom fail to survive their first year, can get a little peace and appreciation for all the trees they have planted in the forests and all the fun that bright-eyed children get from watching them. v
NOTE: Squirrels are wild animals. They are not pets. They have sharp teeth and nails and can transmit zoonotic diseases. But they deserve humane treatment and to be appreciated, not scorned.
Gary Rabenko has a Class 1 NY State Wildlife rehabilitator’s license, has been studying squirrels for years, and will be sharing some keen observations as well as practical information in future articles. He may be reached at email@example.com. Rabenko Photography & Video Artists is located at 1001 Broadway in Woodmere.