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Squirrels Die to Be Near Me

Where do squirrels go to die?


Until the week of Dec. 6, I would have said “busy roads,” given how many bushytails we see pancaked on pavement across Wisconsin, be it city streets or rural highways.


But maybe not. By the time Dec. 12 arrived, I wondered if squirrels prefer dying in my presence. And I’m neither flattered nor amused. I’m defensive. I keep getting suspicious looks after pointing out a squirrel carcass, and saying something innocent like, “Hey, look at that!”


Note I said “innocent,” not “incriminating.”


What the heck? Do people think squirrels never die of old age, heart disease, rodent viruses, complications from parasites, or other natural causes? Do folks assume squirrels live as long as Sequoias, unless some cranky old guy like me takes to disliking them? For the record, I haven’t killed a squirrel since I last hunted them in the 1990s.


These incidents began Sunday, Dec. 6, in Waupaca as I loaded my hoard of rough-sawn lumber onto an 18-foot flatbed trailer. My wife and I are moving to Eau Claire, and that includes bringing all the ash, oak, elm, pine, cedar, spruce, poplar, maple, birch, walnut, butternut and tamarack boards I’ve amassed the past 15 years.


As an aspiring lumber baron, I often chainsaw dead or unwanted trees for friends and family, and haul the trunks to a buddy who enjoys portable sawmills more than fast cars. If I live to 100, I’ll eventually turn all my lumber into flooring, bookshelves, office paneling, wooden boats and other cool stuff.


Anyway, while pulling some cedar and butternut boards from atop the pile, I noticed wads of chewed cedar bark and a stash of gnawed walnut husks on the boards beneath. I tugged the tarps from the woodpile’s rear to inspect the trespasser’s mess, and calculated eight years had passed since I last peeked beneath the covers.


As those crusty tarps fell away, I spotted a squatter stretched dead along the ledge of a walnut board. Sparse neck and tail hairs on the mummified corpse identified it as an American red squirrel. Tugging my gloves tightly, I pulled away the nesting materials while flicking aside wood dust and walnut husks.


Seconds later an older, hairless, more mummified squirrel emerged beneath my brushing fingers. Just enough neck hairs remained to identify it as another American red squirrel.


Although their nests and gnawed walnut shells made a big mess, the squirrels didn’t harm my lumber. After brushing off the wood and bagging the debris, I resumed stacking the lumber onto the trailer for the 140-mile haul to Eau Claire.


When returning to Waupaca on Monday and telling my wife about the two squirrel mummies, she inquired into their deaths. Though she stopped short of swearing me in and recording my statements, she seemed skeptical they had died at nature’s indifferent hands.


Still, I stuck to my story. Squirrels lead hard lives. For all their chasing, chattering and freeloading at birdfeeders, I don’t envy their lifestyle. Only about 15% to 25% of them survive their first year, and if an individual squirrel celebrates age 10 in the wild, Al Roker should do a birthday shout-out on the Today Show. How many of us would reach age 100 if we had to scrounge up 1.5 pounds of nuts and seeds in the wild each week?


When it’s time for squirrels to die, they typically settle into their den or nest, and pass on unseen and unrecognized. In fact, if other squirrels share the space, they’ll huddle alongside the corpse to absorb whatever benefit it provides.


By dying inside my dry, sun-baked woodpile, those two red squirrels decomposed slowly. Granted, my woodpile’s interior isn’t that of an Egyptian pyramid, but little moisture and bacteria survive there. The squirrels’ dehydrated corpses weighed as much as a turkey feather when I found them, not the 7 or 8 ounces that adult reds average.


I didn’t think much more about those squirrel mummies until returning to Eau Claire on Friday. That’s when my new neighbor, Jim, walked over as I unloaded a freezer from my trailer.


“You have to see this,” Jim said, and directed me to an old maple tree in my front yard. There, about 8 feet off the ground, the head, neck and front quarters of a black-phase gray squirrel hung limp from its den hole in the tree. The chunky squirrel looked like it was imitating the shoulder mount of a white-tailed buck, as if punking its buddies: “Hey, what am I? One of Durkin’s deer mounts, that’s what!”


But no, Jim said he heard a squirrel barking incessantly from the den hole two days earlier on Wednesday, and noticed a dead gray squirrel at the tree’s base. When he looked over the next day the dead squirrel was gone, and the black-phase squirrel was halfway out the hole above. When Jim noticed the black squirrel still there hours later, he walked over for a closer look. The squirrel was dead.


“Any idea what killed it?” he asked.


“No, I don’t. Stuff dies,” I answered, trying not to sound defensive.


We agreed a neighbor’s dog or cat, or perhaps an owl or coyote, had wandered by Wednesday night and pilfered the dead squirrel on the ground. And then we speculated about the dead squirrel in the hole. Was it stuck, and died of exposure or the pressure of the snug hole compressing its chest and diaphragm?


I grabbed a ladder and climbed up to look. I spotted a small red bubble under its mouth, and flicked it with my glove tip.


That was the extent of my investigation. What caused the squirrel to die while aspirating blood? I’ll never know, but I doubt it was trauma from getting stuck in the den hole. I easily slid the squirrel from its hole.


I shrugged, carried the fat corpse down my ladder, and dropped it in the woods behind our home.


And if someone tries pinning me with the rodent’s death, I have an alibi. I was in Waupaca all day Wednesday and Thursday when that squirrel was last seen alive and later found dead.


I have witnesses.

American red squirrels weigh about 8 ounces on the hoof.

1: A black-phase gray squirrel hangs dead from a den hole in an old maple tree in Eau Claire. 2 and 3: Patrick Durkin found these mummified remains of red squirrels near each other inside stacked lumber behind his house in Waupaca. — Patrick Durkin photos

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