Monday, September 6, 2010

Gray squirrels have a taste for the finest in figs

Small squirrel...large fig

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 5, 2010)

Bushy-tailed bandits are stealing Ralph's figs.

The abundant crop that started in July slacked off in early August, when temperatures climbed and rainfall lessened. Now, as a new month begins, our assorted fig trees, especially the ones closest to the house, are yielding one final burst of plenty. It is a harvest that my fig-loving husband is eager to tap.

Unfortunately, he is not alone in his quest for the sweet-tasting, soft-skinned fruit. A band of gray squirrels also has noticed this emergent second flush. Squirrels may be small, but they are extremely agile and clever animals. Their walnut-sized brains are adept at finding the biggest, best-tasting fruit before my husband is even aware that a fig has ripened.

Although gray squirrels are ubiquitous throughout the country, they didn't always live on our property. When we purchased the land in 1991, it was mainly open fields. We had no squirrels because we there were no abundant sources of food. A gray squirrel's diet consists mainly of seeds, nuts, berries, fruit and the inner bark of trees. Without a forest or a neighborhood of shade trees, a squirrel's chance of finding a steady supply of edibles is limited.

That changed as the trees we planted over the next few years developed. I recall wondering how long we'd manage to avoid discovery. The answer: not too long after the seedlings matured. As soon as the young oak trees developed into acorn-producing machines, a family of gray squirrels moved onto the property to claim it.

At first, they were cute. I enjoyed watching their antics as white-bellied bundles of fur sat on their haunches munching seeds and twitching their fluffy tails.

Squirrels belong to the order Rodentia, which includes the less lovable mice and rats. Like rats and other rodents, squirrels reproduce prolifically. Female gray squirrels have two litters of two to six offspring every year. After six months, the offspring are sexually mature and are ready to produce their own litters. Because gray squirrels can live up to 12 years in the wild, it's easy to see how quickly a single pair can develop into a vibrant community of acorn-nibbling, seed-crunching, fig-snatching varmints.

The squirrels that are stealing our figs are brazen. One day when Ralph and I went out to do some picking, a squirrel was already on the tree. Instead of scurrying away, as I expected it to do when we approached, the squirrel stood his ground. With four feet firmly planted on the tree's trunk, its head up and tail down, the squirrel seemed to be saying, "I got here first. Go away. Leave me alone."

Of course, we didn't.

"Shoo! Get out of here!" my husband shouted as he rustled leaves and shook branches. In this particular contest of wills, score one for the humans. The squirrel jumped to the ground and scampered off into the forest.

We may have won that round, but I have a feeling that if an accurate tally were taken, the squirrels would come out ahead. In competitions between people and nature, nature has a tendency to reign triumphant.

Perhaps that's how it should be. Figs are a wonderful addition to our diet, but we don't depend on them for our sustenance. When we're hungry, we go to the grocery store. Little gray squirrels don't have that option. They depend on foraging for whatever food they can find.

The lucky squirrels in our yard are dining on fat, juicy figs. From Ralph's perspective, they may be bushy-tailed bandits, but I have to admit: For thieves, they have very good taste.

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