One delightful bonus with the move to Payson is the tree squirrels that frequently visit the backyard. They are silly, cute, and cuddly, and a lot of fun to watch. Well ... maybe not cuddly, but entertaining. Veteran squirrel watchers know that it usually begins with unnatural movements of the branches of a pine or juniper tree. Just follow the bouncing foliage and eventually the cute little mammal will appear.

Squirrel stew is a favorite and a winter staple for our family. Of course, these town rodents are off limits. My knowledge of Arizona squirrel was limited to hunting these tasty little dudes. Because the backyard variety had white bushy tails and a rust colored back, I assumed they were of the Abert’s species. The most popular Arizona tree squirrel. There is plenty of ponderosa pine around and the Abert’s squirrel need that tree to thrive.

It wasn’t until winter that I realized that something was wrong with the squirrels in the yard. They had no tassels or tufts on their ears. Abert’s grow tassels in the cooler weather. How could this be?

I asked a friend, Johnathan O’Dell, who is THE squirrel guru. Not only is he a small game biologist for Arizona Game & Fish, but he has achieved the tree squirrel slam. Yup, it is a thing. You must harvest the eight tree squirrel species in the country to achieve it. See what I mean? Guru.

The squirrels in the hood are not Abert’s at all, but a whole different species. The ones that have entertained me all year are the Arizona gray squirrel. I didn’t know that they existed.

Johnathan not only identified the squirrel but gave some interesting facts. They are actually a fox squirrel by scientific classification. Like the Abert’s need ponderosa, the Arizona gray needs Arizona walnut trees. Adding that there are probably some walnut trees in the area.

The Arizona walnut produces a smallish and extremely thick nut. It looks like any other walnut, only less than half the size. We were able to crack them with a sledgehammer. Not kidding, but the nut was so hard to find in the rubble that it wasn’t worth the effort. I asked Johnathan if they could actually eat them. It would take a super set of teeth to get to the itty bitty piece of meat hiding in the center.

He replied, “Yes, sometimes. But what is more important is the young flowers (aka catkins) which they eat and spurs them into breeding. Kinda like Viagra or Spanish fly for squirrels. True story!”

Hmm, OK maybe that was going on that day last spring. I was minding my business, sitting on my deck, when suddenly a scurry of squirrels appeared. They were running crazily around the yard, up the trees, and on the roof, and then all over again. One especially inebriated individual plopped down on the edge of the roof with a front leg dangling over the edge. His (or her) eyes were all glazed over, and I swear it had a diabolical grin. I was enjoying the show until it became apparent that this guy was going to try and jump from his perch to the Emory oak directly above MY HEAD! Terrified, I was yelling, “No. No. No.” just as the little devil wound up and sprung right at me. No time for anything except defense. I put my arms above my head, fully expecting to be assaulted. Instead, my hair was brushed by a light fluffy tail and I watched, totally amazed, as the squirrel landed on the lowest branch to scramble wide-legged up into the oak tree.

One day, I was sitting in that same chair when I heard a weird scream. It sounded for all the world like a hawk with a severe case of laryngitis. Indeed, I expected to find a sick bird when I peeked around back to investigate. What I found was a granddaddy gray squirrel sitting high in the branches of a juniper and screaming hoarsely. I stayed a long time to be sure. I actually watched his mouth open and heard the scream at the same time. I saw the noise! My squirrel experts told me to throw my bottle away, but I know what I witnessed. I have heard that same scream several times since, though, not in my yard and not in the field.

Then there are times that I have observed more typical squirrel behavior as well. There is a Utah juniper in my yard that they seem to like. Yeah, they like to tear strips of bark off of it! I watched a pair of them as they tag teamed, running off with mouthfuls of bark across the canopy of trees behind the house and into the neighbor’s huge ponderosa. Sure enough, there is a nest in that tree. They were insulating their winter cabin.

Only once have I heard the bark of this squirrel. I accidentally sprayed a youngster that was watching me hose off the deck. He responded with a never ending tirade of chortles and barks. The sounds were a little more raspy than his Abert’s cousin. He did not move from the juniper limb but continued to tell me about how he did not want to be wet. Mark and I laughed until we cried.

They make divots in the yard’s dirt, strip the trees of bark, and trim the tender shoots, leaving tree litter. However, these delightful bushy tails are welcome on my property. In skinny times like the dead of winter, I will set out unsalted peanuts for them.

Even though they have found a relatively cushy life in town, they are wild. Watchable wildlife in the yard. It doesn’t get any better.

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