Anyone who spends a lot of time outdoors has observed things that were odd, curious or ruthless. Archery deer hunters and squirrel hunters–of which I am both–eventually accumulate collections of memories of such events. Since I feel safe in assuming that none of you want to be taught how to do anything the day after Christmas, I’ve decided to end the year with three tales that, if you read only slightly between the lines, illustrate why I prefer the natural world over the artificial one we’re usually doomed to inhabit.
The Odd. To tell the truth, I don’t know if the temper tantrum I’m about to describe is odd squirrel behavior or not. I do know I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.
I was squirrel hunting one beautiful late spring morning and had been watching a young fox squirrel making painfully slow progress in my direction. Finally, he was one treetop out of range and getting ready to jump the gap into a tree that bore a striking resemblance to my skillet.
He misjudged either the distance between the two trees or the springiness of his jumping off point and fell at least 25 feet, landing on the hard ground with an clearly audible thump. He immediately got up, spread the elbows of his front legs outward like a cartoon character bull dog and fanned his tail over his back. I only speak rudimentary squirrel, but I’m sure he was using words nice young squirrels aren’t supposed to know in artfully constructed and perhaps original combinations.
This went on for at least five minutes. By the time he’d calmed down, I’d long since decided he’d had a bad enough day already and didn’t need to have his woes compounded by being shot.
The Curious. This episode also occurred on a squirrel hunt. I was sitting with my back against a big hickory tree and had just shot a squirrel, when I heard what turned out to be an 8-point buck moving through the brush behind me. I assumed that when he caught my scent, he’d depart post haste, but instead, he turned upwind and took up a position in mutual plain view about 15 feet to my left.
A few minutes later, a squirrel spotted the buck and started chattering at him. Completely distracted, the bushytail gave me a perfect shot. At the crack of the .22, the buck trotted off several yards, but by the time I’d gathered up both squirrels, he was back.
I–we–still-hunted 100 yards or so, before I spotted another squirrel. I found a suitable tree to lean my back against, and my new friend grabbed a snack from a Virginia creeper. When the squirrel saw the deer, it sounded an alarm that was soon echoing through the river bottom, putting every squirrel on the property on full alert.
My new friend had obviously overstayed his welcome, and I told him so. He cocked his ears at the sound of my voice, but pretended he couldn’t understand human. I stood up and waved my arms, and he bobbed his head a couple of times and moved about six feet closer. Then I tossed a foot-long chunk of half-rotten wood that hit him in the side. He bounded away, snorting in what sounded like a combination of disgust and disappointment.
The ruthless. It’s not really accurate to describe anything a carnivorous animal does as ruthless, because the animal is only doing what some combination of instinct and prior experience has programmed it to do in order to survive. That said, by the end of this tale, I’m sure at least some of you will understand why I chose a term which means having a lack of pity to describe what I saw.
After a morning’s archery deer hunt, I had just reached the cedar-lined edge of a timbered hillside when I saw a river otter slipping over the dam of a half-acre cattle watering pond located about 200 yards down the slope in an open pasture. I settled in to see what would happen next.
Within a couple of minutes, three otters were cavorting back and forth across the pond, obviously trying to create as much commotion as possible. Then they began to slowly work their way toward a narrow neck at the pond’s upper end. Once two of them had the sealed the opening of the natural trap, the third started grabbing fish, carrying them a few feet up the bank and killing them. This action was repeated dozens of times, before the blockers apparently grew tired of their labors.
The otters took a choice bite or two out of a small fraction of the fish they’d caught and then left the area. That’s when I started believing the stories I’d heard about otters cleaning all of the fish out of ponds and hatchery pools. I also decided I was very grateful that otters didn’t grow large enough to be interested in eating people.
I have no idea what new natural phenomena I’ll witness outdoors in 2016, but I know I’ll be glad I was there to see them.
Gerald Scott can be reached at [email protected]