Fernmire: Farming with Squirrels

I’m afraid June will be postponed indefinitely this year as we continue our third month of April weather.  I’m not one to complain about it though, especially when so many people are currently tormented by drought, heat, and wildfires. Some people stubbornly try to grow tomatoes outdoors around here, but I would say their success rate is less than fifty percent. I’m grateful this is berry climate! Huckleberries, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries all have varieties native to this region. Yum! In Eastern Washington, where I grew up, it normally gets hotter and drier. You can find commercial orchards of apples and cherries in abundance. Tomato growers have a much higher chance of success.

Last year around this time was an anomaly. We were roasting in record-breaking 115°F degree (46°C) heat for a particularly bad stretch of three days. Several people died here and in British Columbia. It was hard on crops and native plants alike. I feel like many people have already forgotten that when they complain about the overcast skies. The plants seem content to focus on their recovery by delaying their blooms and fruit by a couple of weeks this year.

Douglas Squirrel litter pile

One thing I have in abundance is Douglas Fir trees and their pinecones. The one beside the driveway is a robust producer of pinecones. It’s always had a Douglas Squirrel living in or near it since we move in about eight years ago.

Doug the First was a jerk. He’d throw pinecones at us and chitter anytime we were around. Doug the Second kept to himself and we had no interactions to speak of for two years. Doug the third was bold. He’d test me to see if I ate squirrel or not. Concluding that I/we were not squirrel eaters, he once decided to explore our garage while I was in it. Then he’d start leaving me piles of pinecone remnants. Doug the 4th did not live very long. I don’t know what got it. We’re now with Doug the fifth and Sixth. Doug the 5th is male and Doug the 6th is female. At this point the name “Doug” is now gender neutral as far as I’m concerned. I’m hoping for a batch of “Douglets” this year. That would be fun. I might have to set up one of my wildlife cameras just for squirrel pictures!

Pinecone litter closeup
Gathering duff aka forest litter

These two leave me nice big piles of “duff” (defined as leaf litter, small sticks, and pinecone remnants) off to the side of the driveway. I consider this our mother tree of the Fernmire ecosystem. It is one of the oldest judging from the circumference of the trunk. The Douglas squirrels eat all day at the base of the tree or at the separate “pinecone buffet” I made them so that I can clear weeds without disturbing their feeding. In exchange, they leave me generous piles of duff that I can re-distribute to other areas in need of the material for plant restorations. Hence, “farming with squirrels.”

American Robin – Bath time

The other day while carrying the duff two Robins got into a dispute. The one being chased flew all up around my head and so did the pursuing robin. I’m not sure why they thought to involve me. It’s not like I’m going to bite the pursuer! So that was my Tippi Hendron moment, a brief unexpected performance of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” as I shooed them away.

Young bunny

I’m practically tripping over wild rabbits that have no sense to get out of the way. I know that the Bobcat mother is busy working to wean her kits and soon the rabbits will become the feast! Do the rabbits know their fate? This is how the rabbit population stabilizes into a semblance of balance. Normally, our neighbor coyote would be in on this feast, but this one is near death as it loses the battle with mange. So skinny and haggard looking. He walks slowly as if constantly walking into a room and forgetting why he’s there. It’s a terrible thing to watch him waste away. I wish I could administer some kind of hands-free treatment via bait traps or blow darts. I accept that death is part of life, but I don’t accept that undue suffering is necessary. None of the Wildlife Rehabilitators work with coyotes or larger animals in my area. More research is needed to see if there is anything I can do. So far, my deer friends have been spared from chronic wasting disease and for that I am grateful.


Additional Information:

Some nice pictures, info and recipes of native edible berry plants: Natives bearing Edible Fruits | Portland Nursery -missing Mountain or Trailing blackberries (Rubus ursinus), Blackcap Raspberries (Rubus leucodermis) and Gooseberries: Coastal Black Gooseberry (Ribes divaricatum), Sticky Gooseberry (Ribes lobbii), White-stemmed Gooseberry (Ribes inerme) and Northern Gooseberry (Ribes oxyacanthoides). Gooseberries should be fully ripe and eaten in small to moderate amounts to avoid upset stomach. My Great Uncle loved Gooseberry pie.

Douglas Squirrels and other Squirrels of Washington State – https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/living/species-facts/tree-squirrels#

Rabbits in Washington State – https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/living/species-facts/rabbits#

A brief overview of Mange – https://www.in.gov/dnr/fish-and-wildlife/wildlife-resources/wildlife-diseases-in-indiana/mange/

Chronic Wasting Disease in Deer – https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/what-chronic-wasting-disease