A Squirrel ‘Tail’ Worth Reading
So there they were – one grandpa, one grandma, two moms and trio of little ones – tromping along Sycamore Trail in Beckley Creek Park looking for squirrel tracks in the freshly frozen snow.
The January 23rd event was proudly billed as the 3rd Annual Squirrel Day Celebration. The mid-winter excursion – shamelessly labeled as an “Exsquirrelsion”–was a fun if not necessary part of the event.
It would also include Brigette Williams of Louisville’s Second Chances Wildlife Center who would specifically talk about the fox squirrel, the eastern gray squirrel and, of course, the flying squirrel–a creature older hikers could more appreciate as an ingenious, high flying philosopher named “Rocky.”
The event also was close on the tail of National Squirrel Appreciation Day, which was Jan. 21st – but you knew that.
We first gathered inside the PNC Achievement Center for Education and Interpretation for a little of both. The children learned how to make an animal call with a plastic cup, a piece of yarn, a damp paper towel and a paperclip, although the resultant noise did sound less like a squirrel than a tone-deaf woodchuck with a cold.
The kids also colored with crayons, learned how squirrel fat acts as a winter insulator and how squirrels communicate using the position of their tails, certain squirrely calls or by assuming a boxing position when threatened.
Among the participants were Lacey Eckels and her four-year-old daughter, Emma. She was seated at a table smiling a lot, huddling up to her Mom and gently playing with a pair of squirrel skins.
Emma was more than ready for any deep reportorial questioning on the subject. Our Q & A session went something like this:
Why do you like squirrels?
“Because they are really soft …and really pretty.”
That noise I hear sounds like a woodchuck. What do woodchucks do?
“They chop wood.”
If you owned a chipmunk what would you call it?
Did you know squirrels could fly?
“I don’t see any wings.”
Also at the event were Jim and Delores Ward, their daughter, Glenda and their twin, six-year-old grandchildren, Kinsala and Decklan. The five of them spend a lot of time in The Parklands together. They always enjoy what it provides, including a memorial bench for Paul Ward, the twins father, who died a year ago in a car accident.
“We live close by,” said Jim Ward. “We really enjoy the park. We are over here a lot.”
Brigette Williams brought along two flying squirrels and one ground squirrel; they were only to be seen and not touched. She spoke about squirrel history, their habits, and, using a hand puppet, explained their ability to fly–or at least coast with square, outspread wings or patagium–for 250 feet at speeds of 10 to 30 miles per hour.
“But most flights are only about 20 feet or less,” said Williams. “The squirrels use their tails to steer like a rudder. They can’t make 90 degree turns, but they can change course toward a limb.
Williams, a former teacher who turned to preserving wildlife, said the Second Chances Wildlife Center in Goshen, Ky. works with many different animals, and has plans to become involved in many of The Parklands summer camps.
Our Sycamore Trail walk was led by Parklands Interpretive Ranger Whit Pennington, also a former teacher who has found happiness as a part-time ranger and at the National Energy Education Development Project. He travels to 99 schools across Central Kentucky teaching energy conservation.
He led our squirrel centric group to the front of the PNC Center where he cautioned we all pay attention to detail, and stay mostly silent in stalking squirrels–all of which turned out to be pretty much wasted wishes with the kids along.
Away we went toward bare black trees and a Floyds Fork edged in frilly blue ice and white snow. We stopped by a clear set of very visible tracks–deer, squirrels, humans and cats were quickly eliminated as the source. Pennington then suggested these particular tracks were very common on the trail and someone came up with the right answer: “A dog.”
Pennington told us about the squirrel’s eating habits, their propensity to, ah, squirrel things away until truly needed. We walked along Floyds Fork, looking up at distant, dark masses of squirrel’s nests, but did not see any residents.
“Hey squirrel, “one of the Ward children shouted,” come down here.”
No such luck.
We did see birds; a dark-eyed junco and a tufted titmouse; memorable names but not on the squirrel agenda. A belted kingfisher popped out of the river bank–then was gone.
Kinsala Ward–a vision in a mostly pink snowsuit and pink knit hat–had this wonderful habit of crawling into the snow a few feet from the group, getting down on her knees and fussing around in it; happily oblivious to our mission; the cold.
Pennington pointed out an Osage orange tree, mentioned its incredible tough nature and said squirrels will tear into its bumpy green, softball-size fruit (a.k.a. hedge apples) but don’t eat them; just leave a mess.
“Osage branches have very sharp thorns,” he said, “nature’s first barbed wire.”S
We walked a few hundred more yards along a sun-polished Floyds Fork–puffs of white clouds floating across a baby blue sky–before slowly heading back. We never did see any squirrels but I bet they saw us.
For more information on upcoming events at The Parklands, visit www.theparklands.org/events.
About the Author
Former Louisville-Courier columnist Bob Hill is a historian for The Parklands of Floyds Fork. He travels Floyds Fork writing of the people, the places and the history of the stream within the 20-mile park system – all of which is to be preserved in the Filson Historical Society. Some of Hill’s stories appear in A Landscape and its Legacy, the commemorative book for The Parklands of Floyds Fork project. Hill has also compiled a Floyds Fork “Places & Faces” presentation that adds imagery to the words.