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August 01, 2022

Oort Cloud Oddities: Ground Squirrels

By Alexandra Queen

One sunny day several years ago, I was invited to help a friend rassle some cows that were ready to be taken to auction. The cows were all living the high life, out at pasture miles from any sign of civilization. There was absolutely nothing around but orange groves and grassland, for as far as the eye could see. One dirt road led far back, past the acres of orange trees, to a dusty little corral where the cows, hearing the infrequent sound of an engine, would undoubtedly trickle in to take advantage of the alfalfa hay and grain that always seemed to accompany the sound of trucks.

Here, down this magic, lonely road where buildings and cement are unknown, where plumbing and electricity do not reach, where man is a less frequent visitor than the coyotes or geckos, Mother Nature lets some of her less intelligent children out to play. I am talking about none other than the ground squirrel.

Ground squirrels evolved to fill the need for a lo-carb snack food for gopher snakes. They are not brain food. They are not high cuisine. They are little Atkins Twinkies and South Beach bon-bons. But what they really want to be, apparently, is road pizza.

There we were, driving down the road. The first vehicle to come that way in weeks. The only vehicle that would come that way for several weeks more. Miles of empty dirt road behind us. And hundreds of ground squirrels dashing madly across the road in front of us, barely escaping to the other side with their worthless little lives.

One car a month travels that road, if that often. What sad misapplication of instinct compels these feeble-brained critters to dart across the road in front of that one car? What strikes them as being so horribly urgent that they can't wait the extra two seconds to dart across the road behind it?

Oh, my friend explained to me that when they sense danger, their first instinct is to bolt for their holes and that some of them just happen to be on the wrong side of the road when the car comes close enough to spook them.

But how many of these ground squirrels, seeing a coyote trotting through the grass, would dart right under that coyote's nose to get home? For all I know, they do just that. Perhaps they're all a bunch of little Steve Irwins, holding their little pups out over coyote dens and chirping, "Croiky! Ain't she a beauty?" as an every day occurrence. But I don't think so. You see, it's my personal theory that it's got less to do with the ground squirrels than it does with the cars.

There seems to be something about the way cars are manufactured these days that brings out that reaction in a lot of animals. In particular, the animals behind the wheels of other cars.

It never fails to amuse me that I can be driving down one of our local country roads, the only car in sight, and yet still have a vehicle shoot to get out in front of me. Usually to drive slightly slower than I was going, as if the driver in cringing and waiting to be rear-ended.

I used to wonder why people did that. Was it post-traumatic stress, brought on by years of shooting the gap in cutthroat Bay Area traffic? Perhaps they had a car with a beige leather interior and a lower digestive tract with leaky sphincters (a tragic combination, to be sure). Another theory of mine was that they were telemarketers, so accustomed to being annoying and foolish that it spilled over into all aspects of their lives. They were probably taking their small but amazingly loud infants to a movie theatre, where they would also use up all the toilet paper in the restroom, cough explosively without covering their mouths, wear too much perfume and spit their gum onto the ground where I could step on it and get it all over my shoes. All before hurrying home to sit in front of the television and drive up the Nielsen ratings for reality television.

But after I saw the ground squirrels that summer day, I realized that I was wrong about those people. I don't think zooming out in front of oncoming traffic is an instinct that certain individuals or ground squirrels really have any control over. Just as there are some people who barrel along the roads like their chock full of freshly baked goodies from the meth lab's ovens, there are some people who simply have to dart out in front of other vehicles. It's like those people who see huge, scaly creatures with mouths the size of a human torso and immediately decide that wrestling the beast is a great idea.

It's not really anyone's fault, mate. It's just nature's way.

Comments and ground squirrel recipes to alexandraqueen1@hotmail.com.

Article © Alexandra Queen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-06-05
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