I always think of the squirrel year as starting and ending in fall.
The coming of the acorns and the progressively cooler nights are the main events affecting their lives. They have to start caching nuts for winter, and they have to build a sturdy nest to pass the cold winter months ahead.
Overall this fall is shaping up much better than last year. All of our regulars are looking healthy with their full coats thickening for winter and their little protective ear-tufts growing back.
This wasn’t the case last fall unfortunately, when we lost two backyard regulars to raccoon roundworm, a disease spread by racoon feces that can cause neurological problems and blindness. The most common symptom exhibited by squirrels affected by this disease are balance problems or a strange lopsided stance.
In some really bad cases we have seen, the squirrels weren’t even able to sit up without falling over. Surprisingly, and this speaks to their resilience, even severely affected squirrels seem to cope with it.
‘Wobbly Squirrel,’ a large male black squirrel, seemed to get infected in spring and during the disease’s acute phase was so aggressive he couldn’t be approached by man or squirrel. Later in the summer he got better and became one of our most mellow visitors, though he continued to have balance problems and was a really slow eater (he also left pools of squirrel drool all over the place after eating).
Last fall Wobbly seemed to be having a harder time again, his coat was getting rough and he seemed slower and clumsier than usual coming down the fence toward our feeding station. I tried fattening him up by giving him peanut butter laced with fish oil and his coat improved for a while.
One day soon after that, he showed up with a runny nose, had a meal of sunflower seeds, and that was the last time we ever saw him.
The other wobbly squirrel we had to deal with last fall was an even sadder case.
This squirrel was only an occasional visitor to our backyard. He was another black male squirrel with the faintest white tip on his tail indicating he probably came from white tail territory, a few bocks west of us. He had even more severe balance problems and a coarse patchy coat.
Last fall he started showing up every day.
He was so weak he had difficulty defending his food from the stronger squirrels. His back leg was swollen and infected and looked like it had been injured in a fight with another squirrel. When he ‘walked’ he could only use three legs.
I started to make a separate food pile for him farther away hoping to protect him from the others. I also would give him a bowl of warm water hoping to help warm him up a bit. He had barely any fur left and that fall was particularly damp.
When the porch was free of other squirrels he would doze in the sun to warm up. On cloudy days I put out a heat lamp and he would sit under that as well.
When it rained, which was often last fall, he would go and sit under the deck, always at the same spot at the farthest corner. I put up a plywood ‘roof’ above that spot to shelter him from the rain and started to feed him under the deck and give him his water there too.
This worked well, since the other squirrels mostly left him alone since they couldn’t see him. On some occasions, though, squirrels would happen to pass under the deck and I could hear him screeching at them pathetically trying to defend himself and his food. After having been viciously bitten at least once, he seemed to know how vulnerable he was.
I did my best to keep the other squirrels away from him, and he became like my little troll squirrel beneath the deck.
He learned to expect his food and water at that spot and I found him there every morning waiting for me. I would carefully give him his food with a long metal spoon, because he would sometimes mistake the movement for another squirrel and lash out. I felt him bite the spoon a few times. Lucky it wasn’t my hand.
After having his morning meal he would leave the yard heading north, presumably to a nest he had somewhere in that direction, hopefully a warm and dry one. He would come back in the afternoon for another feeding as well.
This went on for a few weeks, but my little troll squirrel was deteriorating by the day till he was literally dragging himself along. I tried to catch him with a towel, frankly hoping to have him euthanized it was getting so bad, but never managed to.
I called wildlife services and the man who came over said that squirrels were so resilient, that as long as they had two working front legs and a bit of energy left they would just keep dragging themselves along as long as they could.
He never managed to catch troll squirrel either.
One rare sunny day last fall, I was working on the back lawn just after feeding my troll squirrel.
From the spot where I was working I could see under the deck and watch him finish his meal of sunflower seeds shakily, falling over every once in a while.
This time when he left the cover of the porch to go back home, instead of going directly north, he came towards me, his wobbly gait painful to watch. He paused and eyed me for a few seconds before crossing the neighbour’s yard (where there is often a dog loose) and returning to his nest.
I can’t be sure if I didn’t do more harm than good in keeping troll squirrel going. Was I helping him, or just trying to make myself feel better, and thereby prolonging his suffering?
In the end I couldn’t bring myself to just let him starve. I hope I managed to provide him with a little comfort. Metaphorically speaking, isn’t that what we are all looking for—a roof to get out of the rain some food and some water?
This is a lot more than most squirrels will get in their natural habitat, and that I think is what is most overlooked about urban animals and their relationship to humans: the city is unnatural for both animals and humans and each seeks the other out, because in the end, we need each other to make the concrete jungle liveable.
Here is a video of Troll Squirrel: