Another Look at Squirrels: From An American Year by Hal Borland

The bird feeder, sans squirrels
The bird feeder, sans squirrels

If you feed birds, chances are that you consider squirrels to be nothing more than a nuisance.  Indeed squirrels eat so much seed that it is often difficult to keep a feeder filled, especially a small one.  While I have no particular grudge against this furry animal who, after all, is just trying to make a living, I am very mindful about the cost of sunflower seeds. Our budget simply does not allow for replacing the seeds that the squirrels whip through with such astonishing speed. I compromise by spreading seed on the ground—some for the squirrels as well as crows, mourning doves, and, yes, mice.

Recently I came across a writer—Hal Borland—who also had some sympathy, and even empathy, for squirrels. According to Wikipedia, Hal Borland “was a well-known American author and journalist. In addition to writing several novels and books about the outdoors, he wrote ‘outdoor editorials’ for The New York Times for more than 30 years, from 1941 to 1978.”

In An American Year Borland writes about baby squirrels by his home. “Our baby squirrels were down on the ground today, for the first time. After that initial venture from the nest, they came out each morning, gaining confidence by the minute….But even on the fourth day they still descended the tree tail downward, in the manner of a black bear cub.”

Borland then goes on to describe how gradually the babies learned to go down head first and how cautious and frightened they were when they were on the ground. But Borland concludes, “From now on they’ll be coming and going many times a day. The mystery is broken. They have found the ground. The world is theirs—for a time.”

Even though I have lived in the woods for over thirty years, I have never been lucky enough to see baby squirrels venture to the ground for the first time. How I would love to see this!

Borland, with his beautiful, precise prose, reminds me yet again what an observant layperson can bring to nature writing. But better still, he reinforces my belief that when you look closely at the natural world, you can gain not only knowledge but also sympathy for the creatures who are struggling to earn their keep.

To my way of thinking, this sympathy can only be a good thing, especially when you consider how quickly we humans are driving so many animals to extinction.

For now, anyway, the squirrels are thriving. Next spring I’ll be on the lookout for baby squirrels leaving the nest.

And I’ll definitely be reading more of Hal Borland, who was introduced to me by Gladys Taber, in one of her books.

9 thoughts on “Another Look at Squirrels: From An American Year by Hal Borland”

  1. That’s how I heard of Hal Borland, too! I’m also a fan of Henry Beston, which you’ve probably read as well. They all evoke a seemingly more simple era.

    1. Yes, I’ve read Henry Beston and also his wife, Elizabeth Coatsworth. Verlyn Klinkeburg, who wrote rural pieces for the New York Times, had this to say about the naturalist Gilbert White: “He recorded what he noticed and in the pattern of noticing lies the art.” The same is true for Hal Borland and Henry Beston. And isn’t it great coming upon a writer from another writer’s recommendation?

  2. Oh, lovely post! We had a nest of baby squirrels a few years back, but i only knew once they were all out ramming about – I missed the scaredy cat phase.

    I probably should, but I never care if the caterpillars eat all my dill or the squirrels eat all my seeds. I love watching them all so much. Right now, the chickadees are eating every sunflower seed right off of the head of my sunflowers (that I thought would give me a seed stash). They are the only ones who can perch on the head and extract a seed easily. All of the other birds are watching & trying – but the chickadees have it down!

    1. Thanks, Jodie. And what a wonderful, gentle approach to the natural world you have.

      1. Me, too, Jodie. However, I do recognize their place in the environment. I just hope that place is far away from me 😉

  3. That is a charming description of the baby squirrels. We don’t have them in Australia but we have possums that are equally cute but they do help themselves to everything.

    1. Mary, I expect the possums are like the squirrels in that they are just trying to make a living 😉

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