Perhaps you recall the Tale of Squirrel Nutkin of the British Beatrix Potter’s imagination written in 1903 about an impertinent red squirrel named Nutkin and his narrow escape from an owl, Old Brown, at the cost of Nutkin’s losing his tail. Know that our local California Ground Squirrels, a beige/gray with white trim color, are much better behaved. Related to prairie dogs and chipmunks, their alternate name, Otospermophilus beecheyi or the Beechey Ground Squirrel, is in honor of Frederick William Beechey, captain of His Majesty’s Ship Blossom, who explored, among many other areas, Northern California in the 1820s. The origin of the name squirrel, however, goes further back to Ancient Greek, skiouros, meaning shadow tail.
You can often spot our ground squirrels during the day, if not in your yard, in Seagrove Park among the rocks and bushes atop our cliffs. While ever ready to beg for a snack from passersby and quick to scatter if none is offered, their main diet is seeds, berries, leaves, woody plants, insects and grasshoppers. Being rodent like, they do need to chew on bark to keep their teeth trimmed. They are restless, alert and quick moving, squirrelly, lest they become a snack for raccoons, snakes or birds of prey. Early spring is their time to mate. Females, practicing polyamory, produce one litter of five up to 11 kits a year. At night they retire to their communal living quarters in underground burrows. Home bodies, they stay within about 80 feet of their burrows. Being ground squirrels, they leave aerial antics to other squirrel varieties.
Squirrel Nutkin though notable, isn’t the only squirrel portrayed in literature. Others, but not necessarily California Ground Squirrels, are featured in many writings, some for children and several for adults. Summer reading? An adult oriented list from Elizabeth McKenzie, author of The Portable Veblen, a novel in which a squirrel appears, includes A Diamond as Big as the Ritz by F. Scott Fitzgerald: a squirrel leads to the discovery of that big diamond in the title; Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov: Professor Pnin is shadowed by a squirrel; Small Game by John Blades: the squirrel is a demon creator of discord; This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff: a squirrel is an innocent victim of a shooting; St Peter’s Day by Anton Chekhov: a squirrel comes to a bad end at the hands of a foolish hunting party. Franz Kafka wrote about a squirrel in his notebooks. And Frederick Nietzsche’s sister reported he had a favored porcelain squirrel named “King Squirrel 1,” a muse.