I stood at the back window of our bedroom. The sun rose over the ridge behind me, the house and trees casting long shadows across the frosty hillside and meadow below. Only the tops of the tallest ponderosa pines were lit in gold. They alone were free of ice.
The house was empty–cold and silent. I hadn’t felt like building a fire or turning on the propane heater when I woke. The cold matched my mood and I wanted to feel it sink into my bones. It had. I thrust my hands into the pockets of my jeans and shivered.
A movement caught my eye and I saw two gray squirrels (Sciurus griseus), plump and fluffed, their tails floating behind them, work their way up to the top branches of a leafless black oak. One followed the other exactly, close, nose-to-tail.
I know those gray squirrels. I had been watching them together since November, foraging around the house for acorns, pinecones and seeds. I had watched them mate, twice, at the base of a live oak.
Last summer there had been only one. I watched it enter an old woodpecker hole in a snag at the top of one of the pines. For days the sound of chiseling announced its nest-building work. Then its mate showed up. They have been together ever since, though they’re not inseparable. They often forage along different ground routes, coming back together in the trees.
The experts say gray squirrels are usually solitary except during breeding season, which in our area is December through February. These two seem to be sleeping together in the same nest, but it’s not uncommon for them to have several nesting sites.
These two had been out early, before sunrise. The top of the black oak is about ten feet from the pine. The lead squirrel didn’t pause. It leapt out toward the pine, spreading its legs wide apart and stretching the skin along its flanks. It glided to the trunk of the pine. Its mate used the same technique and they scampered on up the tree to their nest.
The gliding technique they used reminded me of flying squirrels (Glaucomys sabrinus). I had never seen gray squirrels stretch out their legs so far in their leaping. The northern flying squirrels in the Sierra Nevada glide that from tree to tree or tree to ground. However, there is no mistaking a gray squirrel for a flying squirrel. The diminutive flying squirrels are less than half the size of the 22-inch-long gray squirrels and have tiny ears and big eyes.
The flying squirrel is nocturnal, coming out at dusk to feed on insects and spiders. But flying squirrels are not adverse to taking human food when the opportunity presents itself. Cindy and a friend were backpacking in early fall when a flying squirrel glided from a tree onto her friend’s lap as they sat around the fire finishing dinner. I don’t know who was startled more–the humans or the squirrel.
According to the experts, breeding season is about over, and the two gray squirrels will be separating for their solitary lives. I am reminded of Kahlil Gibran’s famous saying, “Let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of heaven dance between you.” It looked like these two were enjoying their time together, and I’m sure their time apart would be very important for their lives.
For now, though, the two leaping squirrels disappeared together into the top of the ponderosa pine, and I turned away from the window to build up the fire.