This Side of the Pond – Aug. 9

By Sarah Pridgeon

This strange summer we’re all suffering through has claimed another casualty: my deep and abiding respect for my favorite animal. Despite my kinship with the common garden squirrel, one of their number betrayed a lifetime of trust over the weekend.
You’d have thought I’d be able to explain how the situation I’m about to describe came about. Grey squirrels are probably the most abundant mammal where I come from and I believe I’ve mentioned in the past that I owe my qualifications in large part to their species because I opted to focus my post-grad dissertation on the spatial memory of tree rats.
How a squirrel remembers where it buried its nuts is a fascinating question, but I can understand why people are confused when I tell them I performed experiments to further our understanding of it. After all, I graduated with a Master’s degree in psychology, a subject that doesn’t seem to have much to do with the behavior of wild animals – or so it would seem.
My work was actually within the discipline of evolutionary psychology, which studies how nature has honed its children into perfect configurations to deal with the world around them. That’s a fancy way of saying that evolutionary scientists want to know why ducks have beaks.
The actual experiment was less fancy than you’d expect from the jargon I just used to describe it. The basic point of my task was to figure out whether squirrels really do recall their own nut stashes or if it’s blind luck come winter and a lot of panicked digging.
I came up with what I believe to be the most inspired idea I’ve ever had. I would train a group of squirrels to eat what and when I told them to.
I would do this with the help of a nice man down in the woodwork shop, who bored a bunch of holes in a set of wooden boards and loaned me a handful of pink flags. For the next month, I coached six squirrels to come bounding over to the flags at certain times of the day so they could gorge themselves on nuts.
This involved many days of fluffy tails through binoculars, narrowing down the time window while making sure the right squirrel was making the most of the right feast. It’s easier than you’d think to tell one squirrel from another, even if my tutor did ban me from putting bows around their necks.
Once the squirrels were fully convinced that pink flags were a sign of good things to come, I introduced my wooden boards. All the holes were covered with dirt, but only some of the holes contained nuts.
Would my furry subjects learn where their lunch was located? Yes, indeed they would – it only took a few days before they no longer bothered digging up the empty holes. At the moment my squirrels cleared their obstacle course correctly for the final time, I officially added to the sum of human knowledge using nothing more complicated than a handful of nuts.
Not that I added much of value, but it’s still an accomplishment. I tell you this partly to demystify the glamour and glitz of science, which turns out to mostly involve wearing sweatpants while carrying bags of soil and a trowel across campus in full view of your fashionable friends.
I also present my tale as evidence that I have always believed I have a more thorough understanding of squirrel behavior than your average British citizen, which is why the events of the weekend troubled me.
On Sunday morning, as the sun shone over the still-wet grass and I gazed through the patio door wondering if that would be it for the day’s rain, everything went dark and the television switched itself off. I’m well enough versed in Wyoming life that a power cut doesn’t trouble me further than a gentle sigh over the need to reset all the clocks.
But when the power still wasn’t back an hour later, we began to grow concerned. It’s been a few years since the local grid was upgraded and we’ve rarely had an outage longer than a couple of minutes since the work was complete.
Another 30 minutes later and we were worried about the fries and frozen strawberries in the freezer. Time to get hold of the experts. But according to our lovely local power cooperative, there shouldn’t have been an issue and nobody who lives outside our plot of land was affected.
Help was dispatched and arrived in a flash; the source of the problem was discovered equally quickly. The culprit was one of the grey squirrels who made his home in our back yard – a huge creature almost the size of a house cat. Dad-in-law says he was an 85-pounder at the very least.
Said behemoth had apparently decided to take a seat on the transformer box. It did not end well.
Dad-in-law was escorted to the site to witness the stiffened remains of a very surprised squirrel. There did not appear to have been a stash of nuts in the box or nearby so he can’t have been returning to find them, which suggests he must have forgotten where he’d put them.
This does not support the results of my scientific analysis, which is problematic. At first, it was a source of genuine sorrow – it only took one half-witted animal to utterly destroy my contribution to science.
Fortunately, I’ve been able to formulate a new scientific hypothesis, though someone else will need to test it. I suspect there may be such a thing as a forgetful squirrel after all, it’s just that the outcome of their failures makes it rare to actually meet one.