Region III Quarterly

Volume 3 - No. 1

January, 1941


By Paul and Greta Ezell

(Paul Ezell was a Seasonal Ranger in Walnut Canyon National Monument, Arizona, during the Summer of 1940)

They must have watched us secretly for a long time before they decided to show themselves near our tent. Soon they were taking the food we put out in front, and climbing on the out-door table where the dishes were stacked after meals. But at our first movement they vanished.

Officially they are known as the Chestnut Mantled Ground Squirrels, but that was too much for us so we called them "the brats." At our meal times they would seek vantage points outside the tent and sniff so eagerly that we had to put food out for them before we could enjoy our own. They would pick it up in their paws and turn it around and around as they bit on it, feet firmly placed, with an amazing arch in their spines, and their heads pushed forward so that their ears were out in front of their feet. Why they didn't topple over is still a mystery to us. Mere size of morsel never bothered them so long as it was edible. One got hold of a slice of dry bread and started for home with his head high to keep the bread from dragging. Misfortune befell him when he hit a rock and he went end over end.

We sometimes put out a whole slice of broad so that we could enjoy their antics. Standing on the bread one would get a firm grip near the edge and lift it mightily, without seeming to notice that he was trying to lift himself at the same time. When he finally got his feet planted on the ground, and could lift the bread, he usually had the slice out in front, with the far edge barely clearing the ground, and his view of where he was planting his feet effectually obscured. He would travel by a ludicrous series of high hops, but eventually the lower edge of the slice would meet the ground before he did, and over he would go.

They seemed at first to number a single family - mother, with ber right ear split; father, with a hole through one ear, and a long scar across his nose; and two or three youngsters, of whom we could only identify "the runt." He was a pathetic little creature, picked on by the rest. Perhaps because of that, he was the most daring in entering the tent, and the first to take food from our hands. Later we counted seven in view at one time, so that at least part of another family must have moved in on us.

ground squirrels

Sometime around the first of July we began to notice the Arizona Chipmunks and the Gray-Collared Chipmunks watching us from small trees, and surreptitiously taking the food thrown out to all comers. It was the third week in August before the "chips" would take food held in the hand, and even after a month they would not do it consistently. Generally they sat at a distance with one paw drawn up and clenched, as though they were nervous or the paw was cold. They learned the meaning of the throwing gesture, and will start running to the spot before the food falls. Evidently they gather courage from the example of the brats, who have to overcome their own timidity anew every morning, for they are much bolder in taking food from us when they have company.

The brats go to bed before the sun has set, but are never up until well after sunrise. The chips are early risers but they stay out at night, foraging until almost dark. One explanation of the brats' improvident habit of sleeping half of their lives away may be faulty vision. Both will wash their faces with their paws and rub their faces in the dust. Sometimes the chips seize their tails in their paws, bringing the end around and using it for a wash rag. They scratch for fleas with their hind paws, and rub against the shaded ground to cool their bellies. One incautiously lay across an ant road, and sent us into hysterics by his frantic efforts to remove the pests.

In contrast to the peaceful, silent chips, the brats are a quarrelsome, selfish, brawling lot. No matter how much food there is, no two can eat at the same time. While one is chasing another away, a third dashes in to snatch a morsel and be off before a fourth can launch an attack. When angry or frightened, they fluff their tails and hump their backs like a cat. They will run from a chip, although twice his size, if he comes at them fast enough and hard enough. Their quarrels seem largely a matter of vocal abuse, gymnastics, flight and pursuit. Occasionally they clinch and roll over and over, even less frequently stand and spar, but mostly they poise head of one to the tail of the other and chase each other in a small circle, ending with a mutual jump in the air and pursuit with synchronized sound effects. No one ever seems consistently the victor, and despite scars apparently resulting from previous contests we never saw a wound inflicted.

Once the brats got over their first fear, they worked up from outside to inside the door, to up on the beds, to our laps, to the edge of the table and finally our plates. Somewhere in the process they acquired rights to the whole tent. They climb up our arms and backs, getting purchase with their claws, and sit on our heads and shoulders. Perched on a wrist, the movement involved in cutting up an apple did not bother one so long as he was regularly supplied with pieces. One industriously wrestled an apple out of a sack and strutted out on tip toes with a prize as big as himself. Nothing short of thick wood and solid metal will stop them. Cans with tops that push on are of no avail, as they are knocked off the shelves and the lids fall off. Cardboard is as nothing to their teeth, and even our presence is no hindrance.

At first they would run at a shout. When that lost its effect we added arm-waving and foot-stomping. Eventually it reached a point where even throwing something in their direction only gave temporary surcease. Slapping them lightly on the nose or picking them up off the table and dropping them on the floor, where they invariably land on their feet, doesn't dismay them. For a while they feared a fly swatter, but now they come back every time and we get tired before they do and let them have what they want. Often they enter the tent by circuitous paths. A hole dug - under the back wall is favored by the most timid. Others climb over the wooden sidewalls when the side curtains are rolled up. Only the boldest habitually use the door. A favorite stunt is to leap up and support themselves with only the head showing over a sidewall, while they scrutinize us for possible inimical intentions. They often mount the roof of the tent, with much sliding and scrambling - we have never been able to decide what they feel they gain by it.

One day we fastened a string around a crust of bread and placed it just outside the tent. One brave soul came foraging, picked it up and dashed off. When he reached the end of the string the bread snapped out of his mouth and he rolled over and over. Presently he staggered back and spent several minutes looking for it. After three or four tries involving much rolling and searching, the bread fell the last time with the string almost stretched tight. This time he was not going so fast when he reached the end of the string, and he hung on to the bread. He pulled like a bronco on a rope until finally the bread broke and he got his reward.

They are greedy little things and will eat almost anything except meat. Frequently they balance starch and fruit. Bread and crackers were our first offerings and still are the stand-by. Of the vegetables, carrots and cucumbers are the only ones they eat consistently. They nibble at celery, eat tomatoes and potatoes in desperation, will have nothing to do with onions, but finish off garlic with gusto. Fruit salad is their main joy. They have developed a sense of time, and at lunch-fixing periods they invade the tent on the dot to get their ration. They will ignore other food to collect rice or dried beans in their cheek pouches, departing hurriedly to store these morsels and return for more. The bean-laden pouches rattle as the brats walk or run. One brat has consistently stuffed his cheek pouches with every thing set before him, doubling his face width with no effort. He sits on the table and scolds while we scratch his belly and feel his pouches, but goes on eating. One day he tried to grab a pawful of pipe smoke.

The chips will eat only grapes and pears, with an occasional apple to balance their bread and crackers and rice. They eat quietly and seldom quarrel over possession of food. Once in a great while we see them bury food, but it seems, except for rice, to be eaten generally on the spot. We have never seen the brats foraging for themselves, but several times we have watched the chips feeding on the vegetation around camp. Early in September, signs of the approaching winter showed when a chip tried to run away with some yarn hanging from a loom; and a tearing sound brought to our attention a brat ripping a newspaper and cramming his mouth. About this time we began to miss the tassels from our Navajo rug.

The danger signal, which we can best imitate with a short, high, sharp whistle; is almost invariably given by the chips. The first time we noticed it, chips and brats were eating their lunch when a whistle sounded, followed almost immediately by another one even more whiplike in its urgency. Every one of the animals vanished instantly. As we sat listening, there was another whistle with an added quality of surprise and terror simultaneously with the sound of the heavy beating of wings. A hawk had swooped but apparently missed, as he had nothing in his claws. The first chip appeared within 20 minutes and they had all resumed eating within half an hour, but they seemed nervous the rest of the afternoon.

One day the diners scattered in a half-hearted manner following the alarm, and a Sparrow Hawk came around the corner of the tent. He was cursed steadily as long as he was in sight, in a soft throaty bark by a chipmunk whe retired no farther than just under the edge of a log, and came out as soon as the hawk had passed. One enterprising chip turned their faith to his advantage. As the rice supply diminished, he whistled very convincingly. When the rest ran, he continued eating, emitting whistles at short intervals. No one stopped to argue with him, and for a short time he had the field to himself.

Occasionally we have a visit from some Aberts, or Tassel-eared squirrels, but they are not sociable. Once we put out some hamburger, hoping that it would attract a night prowler. The next morning we saw one of the long-eared fellows eating it. He would take a piece about the size of a golf ball and carry it 50 feet or so to eat it. Finally he stayed beside the meat to finish it off. Evidently our movement didn't bother him, but the click of the camera caused him to leave. The brats and the chips did not seem to be particularly afraid of him, but they gave him plenty of room.

Ordinarily the Abert hops like a rabbit, but once we saw one walking, one foot at a time, as the brats often do. When one was cornered in a tree he jumped from a height of nearly 50 feet, and hit the ground running. One day when a chip ran toward him, Tassel-ears "froze," except for his tail which twitched as does that of a hunting cat. When within about 5 feet of the squirrel, the chip saw him. As the larger animal leaped, the chip fled so swiftly that he was a dozen feet away when the hunter landed. The squirrel made no attempt to pursue, but ambled off in another direction, appearing slow and clumsy in comparison with the smaller rodent.

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Date: 17-Nov-2005