Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Is that a squirrel in your pocket or are you...

Since I’ve been watching nature and keeping a journal for 10 years, I sometimes go out with my binoculars and camera presuming predictability. Then there are times when an experience stumbles across my path and reminds me of the unforeseeable nature of life. Late yesterday afternoon was one of those times. I went into Prospect Park with a mental list of simple expectations, did not find any of them, but came home with a slightly greater appreciation and knowledge of the natural world.

I started by heading directly to Alice and Ralph’s nest. In two weeks, we should be seeing signs of hatchlings and Alice is spending most of her time on the nest. Occasionally, Ralph will deliver food to her and I wanted to take a photograph of the two together. Just as the last time I was monitoring the nest, there were several Palm Warblers walking passed me as they foraged in the forest’s leaf litter. There were also Hermit Thrushes, lots of robins, kinglets and Brown Creepers very close to where I stood. I didn’t want to move the camera for fear I’d miss an exchange at the nest. That exchange never happened, so I packed up my gear and headed to Grand Army Plaza.

I “knew” if I trained my camera on the top of the “Soldiers and Sailers” monument for long enough, I’d be able to get a good photograph of one of the local American Kestrels. Not long after I had set-up and focused my camera, I spotted a kestrel flying in from the north. It circled the monument once, then perched on the corner of a building on Plaza Street. Their usual perch on the monument is less than 100 yards from where I stood. The Plaza Street location is three times the distance. Her mate joined her on the cornice a few minutes later. Neither bird ever took a seat on the statue directly in front of me and eventually took off flying down Prospect Park West. I packed up my tripod and began walking home along Park Drive.

Near the Meadowport Arch, my friend Ed pulled up along side me on his bicycle. I told him about the kestrels as we continued walking south along the edge of the roadway. When we approached the intersection near 3rd Street, I noticed a very young squirrel walking near the curb. It was heading directly into the road, which was buzzing with rush hour traffic, runners and cyclists. I blocked his path with my boot and nudged him back away from the road. There is a narrow strip of woodlands parallel to the road that borders the Long Meadow to the east. It is the same stretch of woods where Big Mama raised her first brood of hawks in 2002. The young squirrel moved slowly, but seemed determined to walk into traffic. Finally, I bent down, picked it up by the scruff of its neck, carried it back into the woods, and placed it behind a black, wire fence.

I thought that would be the end of the story, but the confused little squirrel was tiny enough to step through the openings in the fence and head back towards the road. This time, though, when I blocked his path with my boot, he began to climb my leg. Ed was laughing, but I didn't know what to do. When he got to the top of my pants, he tried to push his way into my coat. The sun was going down and he was cold, so I let him climb into my pocket. He curled into a ball and promptly fell asleep.

I spent the next 30 minutes standing at the side of the road, talking on my cellphone to a New York City 311 operator. Apparently, after 5PM all city agencies, Animal Care and Control, wildlife rescue departments, department of parks, etc., are closed for the evening. The operator recommended that I take it home and call again in the morning.

The young, male Eastern Gray Squirrel seemed perfectly content in my coat pocket as I searched the apartment for a small box and a towel to line it. He stayed curled up while I fashioned a temporary home, searched the Internet for information and made a few phone calls. I learned that they get cold very easily, so I placed a heating pad underneath his box. Eventually, I received a phone call from a woman at the department of parks. She seemed irate and told me that I should have left him in the park. I explained that I was only following the instructions of the 311 operator, plus, he would have been run over by a car had I left him. She explained (incorrectly) that it had my scent and that is why it was following me. The woman made several other, silly, uninformed statements, which I ignored. All wildlife rescue organizations that I checked said, in fact, not to leave a baby squirrel out after dark. They need to be kept warm and, at first light, returned to where they were found. If the mother is alive, she will find her offspring.

My alarm went off at 5:50AM. I wanted to be in the park when the sun came up and spend 2 hours waiting for momma squirrel to show up. It was 40 degrees, so I filled a bottle with hot water, stuck it inside of a sock and put it in the box with the tiny squirrel. Once in the park, I went to the exact spot where he found me and looked around for any squirrel dreys. I didn't notice any so placed the box at the base of the largest tree, opened the lid, then walked back several yards to watch. The little guy walked out of the box, and then slowly started to climb the tree. He got about 10 feet up, then turned around and returned to the box. I waited 90 minutes, but there were no signs of any other squirrels in that area. There were some in the tree near the 3rd Street playground, quite a distance from where I found him and on the other side of the road. I walked over to the box and he was curled up on the water bottle, shivering. I picked him up and he climbed my arm, up to my neck and buried himself in the collar of my fleece jacket. I felt terrible and called the city’s 311 service again. This time a man answered the line. His terse response was, “The city doesn’t deal with orphaned squirrels or pigeons.” Thanks, and you have a nice day, too.

Bobby Horvath is a wildlife rehabilitator who I’ve written about in the past. I called his number and spoke with his wife, Cathy. She gave me a lot of very good advice, so I headed home with the little guy still wrapped around my neck. I put him on the kitchen table on top of a heating pad set to low. He drank water from an eyedropper, licked some peanut butter from my finger, but didnt care for the apple that I had sliced for him. By 8:30AM, I reached a squirrel rescuer who is located in Manhattan. He was heading out of town, but said that he would wait for me if I could come right away. I put the cardboard box with the comfortable blanket inside of a canvas bag and placed my tiny, gray ward inside.

The train I got on was very crowded, but I found a spot in the last car that wasn’t too bad. I was nervous about the squirrel getting out, especially when I felt him squirming around between the bottom of the box and the canvas bag. He had gotten out of the box. I cupped my hand around him, hoping that he would feel the warmth and stay put. Every few minutes, he would move around. I noticed a woman seated to my side, intently watching the bag and had visions of him popping out, scampering up my sleeve and all the people around me heading for the hills. Thankfully, that did not happen and I made it to the squirrel rescuer without incident.

The man was very kind, said the baby squirrel looked healthy and fed him some formula from a plastic syringe while I was still present. He explained that Eastern Gray Squirrels live about three years. There are many dangers in city parks, but sometimes mothers just die and the young panic, leaving the nest in search of food. The future for my overnight visitor, fortunately, looks good. The rehabilitator said that I could call him next week for an update on the little guy.

Like all animals, squirrels are cute and cuddly when they are young, but I need to stress that they are still wild animals that belong in the wild. If you ever find a baby squirrel, hawk, mouse, whatever, do the right thing and call (in NYC) 311, or your local animal shelter. Here is a link to resources in the New York City area. While I don't endorse caring for a wild animal yourself, here is some very good emergency care instructions for squirrels.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

21 comments:

Pamela said...

I read this to my husband - I found your dedication to this little baby so refreshing.

Michael said...

What a great story, glad that it had a happy ending for the little guy. I had a similar experience a few years ago, but the squirrel was much younger. Took him home for the night and kept him warm, and took him back out in the morning to where I had found him. Mom came scampering down the tree, and he climbed aboard!

Love, Ranter said...

I found this story on Queens Crap and it's a great way to start out the morning. Great job and I'm glad you were persistent enough to get to someone that actually knew what they were talking about.

Marie said...

What a wonderful story, and the picture of him curled up..? So, so sweet - and the squirrel on the subway! Very well told. Thank you.

Nichol said...

This story made my day.

MIke said...

What a nice thing you did! I'm sure you're right that the little guy has a good future now.

Roe said...

What a great story - and an enlightening one regarding the dubiously 'helpful' 311 staff. You are such a good person; it's nice to know there are still some of us around.

And thanks so much for the pictures - I'm going to read about your experience to my children tonight and I know they will love them.

ChristieNY said...

Soooo sweet! I'm glad you were able to help the little guy out! :)

Karmyn R said...

What a great story! I'm surprised he was so brave to be with you.

My dog brought home a baby squirrel once (very gently carried it in his mouth). He even protected it from our cats when it started to cry. We turned him into animal rescue here in Oregon. They said he was 6 weeks old. No clue where he came from.

Dreaming what Ifs...

Sandy said...

I came to visit from Karmyn's Weekly Delight and I am so glad that I did.

You are truly a kind person, sir. Thank you.

C said...

What an adorable little guy - the squirrel that is ;)

Jan said...

Thanks for this great tale. I'm so glad there was a great ending.

Yojimbot said...

Great story, as for 311, whenever calling, be sure to get your case number. That way you can followup. Without it, each time you call you have to go through the process all over again.

Laurie said...

Thank you so much for sharing this story with us. You did a wonderful thing for that little guy, and I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that you saved a life. You're a real hero!

My Husband Calls Me Weird said...

Thank you for sharing your story. I have such a soft spot for squirrels.

nikki

Hamid said...

This is a fantastic story. I so love squirrels and what you did for this little baby is so commendable. He's such a little cutie. Thank you for taking such great care of him...

NewYorkDave said...

Well done! You've restored my faith in human kindness, at least for the moment.

lisa marie said...

Thanx to Pamela and Karmyn for pointing this post out to me. I love that you are so kind. :) That sweet little squirrel will probably love you forever. :)

pink23 said...

you are SUCH a good person. you took so much time, and showed so much caring. the world would be an infinitely , palpably better place, if everyone had those feelings that you did, and then acted upon them.. and showed that every living creature is valuable and worthy. i thank you for your contribution to making this a sweeter world.

Jennifer said...

Thank you for being such a good soul and looking out for him. This made my morning.

Julie Feinstein said...

What an incredibly cute little animal. I'm so glad you found him and took care of him. You have some good karma coming! :)

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