Most people familiar with the squirrel, think of a bushy tail and backyard bird feeder robbery. The squirrels of most urbanite’s experience nest in trees and scold other people for the most innocuous behavior. They are very territorial and have been known to yell at people for no more apparent reason than that the person is alive and nearby. They have been known to yell at a lone Homo Sapien child riding a bike down a wide suburban street. There are those who would maintain that are trying to warn the child of the dangers of street living. We do not know. People of our stripe have not bothered to learn their chatter vocabulary and grammar in any detail. And those who purport to know what a bush tail might be telling the child, are purporting from ignorance. Perhaps a whole new culture awaits the linguist who tries develop a dictionary for the language of these thieves?
All that said, this is not the squirrel I am speaking of today. There are several people in my extended, Montana, neighborhood who might answer “yes” to the question “are you a squirrel” (if they thought the question was not a silly one and if the gibberish language of the question was comprehensible to them). One tribe of these squirrels in my Montana neighborhood does live in trees and may raid an occasional bird feeder. And if you pass one of this tribe they do yell at you. But they are only found in the high mountains—usually distant from bird feeders; and so do not cross my path every day, all summer long.
This is also not the tribe of the squirrels I am writing about today.
The little folk I speak of do not have bushy tails. They do not live in or climb trees. And they are not bird feeder thieves. They belong to two or three tribes of ground squirrel who live in the valleys and foothills of the Rocky Mountains of Canada and Western Montana. They live in burrows they build underground, and they run along roads they make on the solid earth. It may be that the reason they are not bird feeder banditos is because they do not normally climb trees. There are those—mostly those who wish to believe the best of people—who will say these “adorable” critters would NEVER raid a bird feeder—tree climber or not. People who say this tend to be the same sorts of people who, as a part of their experience in Nature, want up-close-and-personal with Bull elk in Rut, Buffaloes, and Grizzly bears.
I maintain a severe Montana skepticism.
One thing that the folk of this tribe of squirrel do that all other squirrels and most other Marmota do is scold and boss and curse at most other people. (Squirrels are a tribe of the Marmota Class of Mammalians.) Their language is not a chattery one, such as tree squirrels have perfected, nor is it the bark of the prairie dog, but it is a shrill squeally, whistley, screech. If these little people are out rummaging for pantry and nesting materials, forget about a quiet stroll through the sagebrush and Montana Bunch Grass. Forget about a summer stalk to pick a pic of the mamma Mule Deer and her Bambino. Forget it. These damned little gossips let everybody know your are present and up to no good—regardless of your actual intentions. There are those who say squirrel-folk language differentiates between rifle and camera, and that they will whistle-sqeal which you are carrying so the rest of nature can either run away or pose as may be appropriate. The people who say this sort of nonsense seem to be the same folk who pet Grizzly Bears in Yellowstone park. Such has never been my experience.
A few of these little people are my neighbors (squirrels, not Grizzly petters). We get along. Mostly. As long as they do not steal my pansies, broccoli, or spinach, we get along pretty well. As long as they do not engineer their roads in my lawn, we do not have any arguments. Unfortunately they love pansies, broccoli and spinach. Unfortunately, they engineer roads between their houses and my garden for the single purpose of robbing me. (You understand my skepticism related to bird feeders and their innocence?) This has led to a few yelling matches and mutually misunderstood curses and warnings.
I have purchased a gun. I have shown it to them.
Their sqeal-whistle screech cursing and yelling does not seem to change. The language sounds the same to me: perverse, obscene, gossipy, and full of Marmota lies about people who try to maintain lawns and grow broccoli. (I will say this: Their talk does not seem to be profane. Perhaps they are more Godly than people of our more upright persuasion. Or perhaps they are less Godly and just do not believe that profanity will serve any useful purpose. I am not linguist enough know.)
I have thought of murdering a few of them as warning. But I cannot even murder someone even when I understand their curses and lies. So it is difficult to murder someone whose speech is unintelligible to me. Perhaps they are not cursing. Perhaps they do love God so much that profanity never occurs to them as a proper means of speaking. Perhaps they are merely politely asking me for the loan of some broccoli to feed their children. (Fair enough.) Perhaps they are trying to warn me about snakes in the grass or about crossing roads. I just am not certain enough to commit murder.
So, we are at a stand off. I show them my gun. I tell them to behave. They stand up and whistle-squeal at me—whether to tell me about snakes or to yell at me for disturbing their peace, I do not know. We yell back and forth.
Fortunately it is coming on winter now, and they are in their homes eating my broccoli and spinach, so the intensity of the conflict has abated. Perhaps they are down there in the burrows muttering about me the way I am up here, muttering about them. We will never know—not having ventured into their homes. And we do not understand enough of their lingo to know what they mutter even if we did manage to Alice down their burrow.
I do not expect this truce to last much beyond spring thaw.
If any of you Bull-Elk-in-Rut and Grizzly Bear petters out there have survived to finesse a lexicon of the Marmota languages, specifically a dictionary for the screech-squeal-whistles of the Richardson or Unita Tribes of Ground Squirrel, I would be interested in a copy.