Squirrel in the Winter

For the past week highs in this January of a Broadview Heights winter have approached 40 F. Although there have been record lows in recent months, the mild weather echoes a mild November. (A few flying insects hatched early, as if it were spring, and are trapped behind a screen in a window.) The two feet of snow has partly melted,  but more will arrive soon. The hyperactive squirrels in the woods bordering my back yard never seem to mind the weather, whether a perfect spring day or a winter blizzard. Whether playing or working, they go on their merry way oblivious to everything except their patch of woods.

On this day I saw something I’d never seen before. A red squirrel was quickly gathering leaves off of the lower branches of a tree, compacting them into its mouth, then gathering more leaves and compacting those, until it could carry no more. Then it would travel up the tree to a branch high up, jump over to a branch on another tree, then continue traveling up the tree until it arrived a spot about 50 feet above the ground, where three branches pointing upward made a pocket where the squirrel had placed a large amount of leaves and twigs. Whether this was a nest or simply a cache of food supplies I do not know. But after delivering the compacted leaves, the squirrel would come back down more or less the same route it took up, jump over to the other tree, then go down to where leaves were. This being winter, there were relatively few leaves, in varying shades of brown. When I looked the next morning, all the leaves on the tree were gone, although there had not been many the day before. I watched the squirrel do this back and forth with its gathering and delivery several times. It chose to gather the leaves closest to his cache, rather than some further off. Although it didn’t do any math, somehow it did a mental calculation that the leaves it chose were closest and the paths it chose optimal in terms of time and distance. The next morning it was playing with another squirrel, most likely its mate, rather than working.

Although most likely this is programmed, instinctive behavior, some if it may be learned. Do people have similar instincts? Do people with an obsessive compulsive disorder who collect too much useless stuff have such an instinct that has gone haywire, rather than being useful, being dysfunctional? We all squirrel things away from time to time, planning to use them in the near or distant future. How many things do we squirrel away that will never be used, but merely take up space and cause accumulated inventory costs? If they increase in value that is one thing. If they depreciate to being worthless that is another. Perhaps there are two lessons with the squirrel. One is that yes, it’s important to prepare for the winter ahead. The other is that beyond a certain point, there is no need to squirrel more when you have enough.

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