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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Yosemite's scrofulous cadgers

That's him, next to the squirt gun. We're talking about the California ground squirrel, Yosemite's scrofulous cadger.

His life seems to be an obsession with junk food. If his cute squirrelly presence doesn't seduce you into tossing him a handout, he has no qualms about taking it from your plate, car, backpack or sleeping bag. When he needs a fix of corn chips and bean dip, he'll go to any length to get it. Like junkies anywhere his personal hygiene leaves something to be desired. If you think all ground squirrels look slightly raunchy, just hike into the high country and check out their svelte cousins there. A diet of seeds, gooseberries, bark and the occasional bug makes a world of difference.

Before continuing, however, let me commend the National Park Service. Despite modest increases in federal funding in past years, the park service has carried out its mission exceedingly well. And it has done an excellent job of notifying us of the consequences of feeding wildlife. It has appealed to our common sense ("feeding wildlife can be dangerous"), to our sympathy ("feeding wildlife is bad for their heath"), and to our fear ("feeding wildlife can expose you to disease"). But the task is overwhelming, because most campers can't help themselves. They seem to leave a trail of food wherever they go. So, the park service invests its greatest effort in protecting visitors from bears, and protecting bears from visitors.

If you don't believe it, just leave your salt shaker, an empty pop bottle, or a bag of chips on your camp table. Mr. Park-Ranger-Man makes his rounds after you've turned in, and it doesn't matter what you are doing in there. He'll provide the lighting and wait patiently for you to put the food in the bear-proof locker or trash can.

But rodents are a different matter. The park service simply warns you in advance not to feed them, and then lets the rodents put you to the test.

We had our test last year. Our group came prepared to fend off the cadging rodents. We already knew that it was impossible NOT to feed them. There was always the occasional fallen chip, or the misplaced dish of snacks to give them hope.

So a few anonymous members of the group decided that a squirt gun or two would not only discourage the rodents, but also provide them with a much needed bath. Mind you, this is frowned upon by park management, and I certainly don't endorse or recommend it, but a drama of man and beast inevitably plays itself out in the campground. (And let me add that I use the term "man" advisedly, because few women in campgrounds do as many stupid things as men.)

Well, no sooner than the snacks and libations started to appear so did the squirrels, and with a little practice the marksmen were spot-on target. It was great sport, and a highly entertaining diversion. But the squirrels were really pumped from eating the junk food. Even as the stream of water drew closer, they kept eating at high speed, and when the water hit its mark, they merely scampered beyond the circle of people, and took a hurried dust bath.

Then the muddy rodents made a diversionary circuit behind the tents, and appeared unexpectedly in our midst ready for the next round.

Well, when happy hour came to a close, a few human casualties were almost dry, and the squirrels seemed to have gone to bed. The ladies laid out a splendid assortment of salads, pasta, baked beans, assorted vegies, and grilled meat. A couple more bottles of two-buck Chuck appeared, and we filled our plates. Then we settled down to enjoy the repast. By now, as they say, we weren't feeling any pain. The hikers' aches were gone, the conversation was flowing, and we dined in a spirit of conviviality.

Then one of the ladies got up to refill the wine glasses, and we heard the anguished cry. A scrofulous cadger was on the table, sitting in the casserole, enjoying the pasta. There was a great hue and cry, the men took up their arms, and the food was sprayed with water.

The squirrel seemed to know we'd lost our edge. A few minutes later he was discovered once again in the casserole dish. He had obviously been there for a while and looked rather bloated, but he made his exit unscathed.


NMadison said...

I Know That Squirrel! How wonderful, I was just in Yosemite myself (14th - 16th) and saw the little furry pirates everywhere. I was also impressed at the park's many attempts to "keep the wildlife wild". All told... bears and mule dear and Stellers jays... oh my!

Camera Trap Codger said...

You arrived the day we left. What a place! I just read that the bear education project has been highly successful. One of our neighbors was feeding the stellar's jays snacks on his head. That group of young couples was from the bay area, and they didn't seem to leave their campground.

Jackie said...

What a tail of a tale! I would love to see a video of that squirrel encounter in the casserole.

Camera Trap Codger said...

zhakee, There is no end to goofy people-wildlife stories in parks, as you know, and I wonder why no one has done a film documentary. There are bits and pieces here and there, and the serious stuff (like killing by bears) always gets covered. It would make a fun project showing the lighter side. One of these days I must get a video cam.

Anonymous said...

In this part of the world we have the same problem in big campgrounds, but the players are different. We have no squirrels in Australia, but the
Goannas (Lace Monitor Lizards) often exhibit the behaviour similar to that described for the squirrels. Recently a camper in the Daintree Rainforest region of northern Queensland told me that she was eating her lunch at a picnic table when one of these large lizards jumped up on the table and took her sandwich right out of her hands. There are other accounts of these lizards entering tents for food--even while the owners are within.

Use of a water pistol would be of little value in deterring these giants. The only way to combat them is to be vigilant and eat quickly--and don't leave food exposed in places where it will be discovered.

Another feature of the behaviour of these lizards is their relatively poor eyesight (or poor judgement!). When alarmed they often run and climb the nearest tree. To them a human standing in the track resembles a tree enough to climb. With their sharp claws and strong jaws, it's not the lizard that comes out second best in this situation.

Dave Rentz

Camera Trap Codger said...

Now we know why you Ozzies are so tough. I'll take squirrels any day.

Jackie said...

A video documentary on the antics of animals and humans interacting would be quite amusing. Once in a while I flip through tv channels and catch a bit of animal planet where they show home videos of animals. Some of those clips give a taste of what a documentary could be like.

Camera Trap Codger said...

"Daylight Robbery", is definitely worth seeing. It's a British film about the unending quest of English bird lovers to outsmart squirrels that raid their bird feeders. Highly amusing and recommended (especially to American nature film makers who can't get beyond predation by sharks and large cats). The squirrels always win in the end.