The Squirrel by Francis C. Woodworth

I had a pretty little red squirrel of my own, when I was a little boy. My father bought a cage for him, with a wheel in it; and Billy, as we used to call him, would get inside the wheel, and whirl it around for a half hour at a time. It was amusing, too, to see him stand up on his hind feet, and eat the nuts we gave him. Billy was a great favorite with me and my brother. By and by, we let him go out of the cage, and ramble wherever he pleased. He became as tame as a kitten. He would go out into the corn-field in autumn, and come home with his mouth filled with corn, and this he would lay up in a safe place for further use. Once the old cat caught him, and the poor fellow would have been killed, if some one had not been near and rescued him from the grasp of his enemy.

We indulged Billy a good deal. We had a box of hickory nuts in the garret, and he was allowed to go and help himself whenever he pleased. He was pleased to go pretty often, too; and he was not satisfied with eating what he wanted out of the box. The greedy fellow! One day he carried off nearly all the nuts there were in the box, and hid them away under the floor, through a hole he had gnawed in the boards.

He was a great pet though, for all that. We could not help loving him, mischievous as he was. He used to climb up often on my shoulder, and down into my pockets; and if there was any thing good to eat thereabout, he would help himself without ceremony. Sometimes, when he felt particularly frolicksome, he leaped from one person's shoulder to another, all around the room.

The more we petted this little fellow, and the more good things we gave him, the more roguish he became. At length he exhausted all my father's patience by his mischief. One of his last tricks was this. He gnawed a hole in a bag of meal, and after eating as much as he could (and this was but little, for we fed him as often as he needed to eat, and oftener too) he carried away large quantities of the meal, and wasted it. He never worked harder in his life, not even when he was trying to get away from the jaws of the old cat, than he did when he was scattering this meal over the yard. Well, we had a sort of a court about Billy, after this. My father's corn-house was the court room, and my father himself was the judge. We all agreed that Billy was guilty, though we differed as to the punishment that ought to be inflicted. The question seemed to be, according to the language they use in courts of law, whether the theft was a petty larceny or a grand larceny. Alas for Billy and Billy's friends! My father decided, in his charge to the jury, that the crime must be ranked under the head of grand larceny, and the jury brought in a verdict accordingly. My father pronounced the sentence, which was that the offending squirrel must die that same day. Billy seemed to be aware of what was going on, for he did not come near the house again till almost night; and when he did come, one of my father's men shot him, and just as the sun was going down he died. For a long time after that, I cried whenever I thought of poor Billy.

Among the many juvenile friends with whom I have had more or less correspondence, as the editor of a young people's magazine, is one who resides at Saratoga Springs. I passed a few days at this watering-place last summer, and called on Master William, for that is the name of my friend—who introduced to me a pet squirrel of his, called Dick. Dick did not perform many very surprising feats while I was present, though I did not at the time set that circumstance down as any evidence of a want of smartness on the part of the squirrel; for I well remembered that it was a very common thing for pets sustaining even a much higher rank in the scale of intelligence, to disappoint the expectations of those persons who think all the world of them, when they—the pets—are ushered into the presence of strangers, for the purpose of being exhibited, and, indeed, I have some faint recollection of thus disappointing an over-fond nurse, not unfrequently, on similar occasions. There are some propositions the truth of which it is quite as well to assent to, when one hears them stated, without waiting for proof; and among these propositions I class those which relate to the unheard-of sagacity and genius of a darling pet. I make it a point to admit, without demonstration or argument, that there never was another such a creature in all the world. Moreover, I saw plainly enough in Dick's keen, black eye, that he knew a thing or two, and I could easily understand how he might greatly endear himself to his little patron. Nor was I at all surprised when I recently heard of the death of this favorite, that my young friend cried a great deal; and I am sure I shared in some measure his grief. Poor Dick! I immediately wrote to Willy, to solicit a short biography of his favorite, for my stories about animals. The request was kindly responded to by Willy's aunt, from whom I received the following sketch:

"When Dick first became a member of the family, he was shy, resentful, and very capricious; but by degrees all these faults gave place to a sort of playful drollery, that called out many a laugh. His cage was a fine, large, commodious place, well lined with tiers, and furnished with every convenience that he could have desired in a habitation, not excepting a big wheel, which is by general consent esteemed a great luxury for a squirrel. But he often liked a change, and when the door was left loose, he would soon find his way out. Then he had many hair-breadth escapes—sometimes from dogs, who looked upon him as lawful prey; sometimes from frolicsome and thoughtless boys, who forgot how much a squirrel suffers who is worried almost to death. Sometimes he has been nearly abducted by strangers, who saw with surprise so small an individual at large, and quite unconscious of the perils of a public street in a watering-place. On one of these occasions, when he was playing with his little master, and skipping from bough to bough on the large trees that sheltered his home, he bounded from a branch to the roof of a three-storied house adjoining, and running across, jumped from one of the angles to the court below, landed on all fours, stopped a second or two to decide if he were really alive or not, then quietly trudged home to his cage. If he wanted a change, Dick had odd ways of showing himself dissatisfied with his condition. In the summer, when his house was too much exposed to the rays of the sun, he would give a queer little cry, which, if no one heeded, he would lie down flat, all extended, and gasp, as if each moment was his last; and no coaxing could bring him to himself, until he was removed, cage and all; then immediately he would jump up, frisk about, sit on his haunches, and laugh out of his eye as merrily as if he had said, 'I know a thing or two—don't I, though?' These manœuvres were a clear sham; he could fall into one in a twinkling, at any time. How many times he has led the children of the family, and the big children too, through beds of beans, beets, and cucumbers, and through the tomato vines and rose-bushes; and when we were in full chase, just ready to believe that he had eluded us quite, and was gone forever, lo! there sat Dick in his wheel, as demure as a judge, and looking as wise as possible at those very silly people, who would be running about so fast, on such a warm day. He never liked any infringement upon his personal liberty; this he always resented; but he would pretend to hide away, and come and peep at you, or jump up behind you, stand on the top of your head or shoulder, play all manner of pranks about your person, get clear into the pocket of any friend, who was likely to have a supply of nuts. He would answer to his name, follow when called, in the house, out of the house, any where, play all about the large house-dog, Tom—pat him on the ear, gently pinch his tail, poise himself on his back, and pretend to sleep by the side of him. But if any one caught him, or held him, as if he were imprisoned—alas! what a struggle ensued—and then, I grieve to say it—he would bite."

The most common squirrels in this country are the gray, the red, and the striped, or chipping squirrel. The latter is the smallest of the three; and as that species are not hunted so much as the rest of the genus, they are very abundant in the woods. Many and many a time, when a child, have I been deceived by the cunning of the chipping squirrel. The little fellow has a hole and nest in the ground. The hole is very frequently either directly under or very near the stump of a tree which has been cut down or was blown over by the wind. Well, the little fellow is accustomed, or he was accustomed, when I was a little boy, to sit good-humoredly on this stump, and sing for hours together. His song has nothing very exquisite in it—it is simply "chip, chip, chip," from the beginning to the end; and his notes are not only all on the same key—a monotony which one might pardon, if he was particularly good-natured—but they are all on the same point in the diatonic scale. However, like many other indifferent singers that I have met in my day, our striped vocalist goes on with his music, as if he thought there never was another, or certainly not more than one other quite as finished a singer as himself. Well, the boy who is unacquainted with the tricks of this little fellow, as was once my own case, steals along carefully toward the stump, thinking that the squirrel is so busy with his music, that he is perfectly unconscious of any thing else that is going on, and that it is just the easiest matter in the world to catch him. Half a dozen times, at least, I have tried this experiment, before I became satisfied that I was not the only interested party who was wide awake. "Chip, chip, chip," sings the squirrel. He does not move an inch. He does not vary his song. His eyes seem half closed. The boy advances within a few feet of the squirrel. He reaches out his hand to secure his prize, when down goes the striped vocalist into his hole, always uttering a sort of laugh, as he enters his door, and seeming pretty plainly to say, though in rather poor Anglo-Saxon, it must be confessed, "No, you don't."

Whoever takes the pains to dig into the earth, where the striped squirrel has made his nest, will find something that will amply repay him for his trouble. The hole goes down pretty straight for some feet; then it turns, and takes a horizontal direction, and runs sometimes a great distance. Little chambers are seen leading out from this horizontal passage, each chamber connected by a door with the passage, and sometimes with other chambers. In each of these rooms, the squirrel stores up different varieties of nuts and other provisions. In one you will find acorns; in another hickory nuts—real shag-barks, for our chipping squirrel is a good judge in these matters; and in another chestnuts, a whole hat-full of them, sometimes. There is quite as much order and regularity in the store-houses of the chipping squirrel, as there seems to be about the premises of some lazy and careless farmers one meets with occasionally.

Accounts are given of the ingenuity of the squirrels in Lapland, which would be too astonishing for belief, were they not credited by such men as Linnæus, on whose authority we have them. It seems that the squirrels in that country are in the habit of emigrating, in large parties, and that they sometimes travel hundreds of miles in this way, and that when they meet with broad or rapid lakes in their travels, they take a very extraordinary method of crossing them. On approaching the banks, and perceiving the breadth of the water, they return, as if by common consent, into the neighboring forest, each in quest of a piece of bark, which answers all the purpose of boats for wafting them over. When the whole company are fitted in this manner, they boldly commit their little fleet to the waves—every squirrel sitting on its own piece of bark, and fanning the air with its tail, to drive the vessel to the desired port. In this> orderly manner they set forward, and often cross lakes several miles broad. But it occasionally happens that the poor mariners are not aware of the dangers of their navigation; for although at the edge of the water it is generally calm, in the middle it is always more rough. The slightest additional gust of wind often oversets the little sailor and his vessel altogether. The entire navy, that perhaps but a few minutes before rode proudly and securely along, is now overturned, and a shipwreck of two or three thousand vessels is the consequence. This wreck, which is so unfortunate for the little animal, is generally the most lucky accident in the world for the Laplander on shore; who gathers up the dead bodies as they are thrown in by the waves, eats the flesh, and sells the skins.

I read an interesting story, awhile ago, which came from the Gentleman's Magazine, about a squirrel who was charmed by a rattle-snake. The substance of the story was something like this: A gentleman was traveling by the side of a creek, where he saw a squirrel running backward and forward between the creek and a large tree a few yards distant. The squirrel's hair looked very rough, showing that he was very much terrified about something. His circuit became shorter and shorter, and the man stopped to see what could be the cause of this strange state of things. He soon discovered the head and neck of a rattle-snake pointing directly at the squirrel, through a hole of the tree, which was hollow. The squirrel at length gave over running, and laid himself down quietly, with his head close to the snake's. The snake then opened his mouth wide, and took in the squirrel's head; upon which the man gave the snake a blow across the neck with his whip, by which the squirrel was released. You will see by this story, which comes to us well authenticated, that snakes possess the power of charming, whatever some people may think or say to the contrary. This is only one among a multitude of facts which I could relate in proof of the existence of such a power among many of the serpent race. But we are conversing about quadrupeds now, and we must not go out of our way to chase after snakes.

A squirrel, sitting on a hickory-tree, was once observed to weigh the nuts he got in each paw, to find out which were good and which were bad. The light ones he invariably threw away, retaining only those which were heavier. It was found, on examining those he had thrown away, that he had not made a mistake in a single instance. They were all bad nuts.