Always, I am fascinated by what I learn in wildlife rehabilitation. During the time when the little orphans we raise require constant care, however, it is easy to overlook gradual changes in appearance or behavior, and even the development of individual personality, because we tend to them and observe them so many times each day. Then suddenly, we realize that what was one day pink, hairless, and oh so vulnerable with eyes sealed shut, is now a fuzzy ball of fur, with eyes wide open to the wonderful, new world around it – scampering and scurrying about in playful joy. But I have found the most fascinating, and sometimes surprising, realizations come later, when I am able to observe them in their natural environment – the woodlands.
One such experience came just recently, when I was busy cleaning the wildlife watering hole (an old bathtub) we keep filled at the base of the slope behind our home. That old cast iron tub has served many purposes, after being discarded by humans long ago. It was a watering vessel for horses for many years but, after we no longer kept horses, I filled the old tub with dirt and turned it into a planter. Unfortunately, that did not work out very well at all, as it got too much sun in the location it was in. So then, when we acquired an abandoned Easter duckling that someone discarded at a city lake (and we purchased a second duckling to keep it company), that old bathtub became a swimming hole for the two of them to paddle around in. Later, when orphaned Daisy deer was set free, I had FD move the tub down to the canyon floor to serve as a wildlife watering tub. Every week since that time, I have cleaned the tub and kept it filled with fresh well water. This is a bit of a chore, but I love knowing it provides year-long hydration for all sorts of birds and mammals – and especially for my Daisy deer.
Being as connected with nature as I have become since moving on this place, I often sense when I am being watched. I know that sounds silly, but I cannot tell you the number of times I have had this feeling of being observed, only to spot an animal or bird staring at me! So, when I felt it again while filling the tub with fresh water the other day, I looked around, then up and in the tree just next to the water tub. Sure enough, I spotted two squirrels perched above me. Considering their smaller size, I guessed them to be juveniles, and they appeared to be grooming each other.
Having never observed squirrels performing the act of mutual grooming in the wild, I slowly stepped back and walked carefully up the slope and into the house to fetch my camera. When I returned, I found the two of them still sitting quietly together on a limb of a hackberry tree. One squirrel was busy grooming the other, kneading gently at its hair, and sometimes poking its nose into the spots it had just run its paws through – as if removing parasites. I wondered if this was a mating pair and perhaps this was some kind of foreplay, but I never saw one mount the other. After moving around to the front side of the tree to get a better angle with my camera, I was somewhat surprised they did not scramble up the tree or scurry around to the other side of the trunk to hide from me. But now I saw why. These two juveniles were the orphans we raised last fall, Punkin and Mr. Gambini! Mr. Gambini was grooming Punkin, and she seemed to be enjoying the attention. No wonder they did not flee this pesky photographer… after all, I am still their mother too!
After taking a few photographs and realizing my water was spilling over the sides of the tub, I left Punkin and Gambini to their grooming and ran back up the slope to shut the hydrant off. Later that morning, I researched this grooming activity online to gain a better understanding. What I found was that squirrels do practice mutual grooming, and that this activity often precedes mating. I also learned that it will most likely be June or July before Mr. Gambini will be mature enough to breed, where Miss Punkin might possibly have had the ability to conceive since March of this year.
Looking back over the photographs I took that morning, it gives me a warm feeling to know Punkin and Mr. Gambini are thriving and doing well in their new environment. I have often observed these two on our back porch, acting more like rival siblings while having a squabble over who gets a pecan snack first. But this day, I had seen another side, and observed a sweet moment with the two of them perched together, quietly and carefully grooming each other – and who knows, maybe even practicing a little romance in the process!
© 2015 Day by Day the Farm Girl Way…