Playing with Grammar

Les Écureuils de Montréal

01_eastern_grey_squirrel_sciurus_carolin_3 Parc du Mont-Royal is one of the largest green spaces in the city of Montreal, and is situated around a trio of 200 metre tall hills from which the park takes its name. Covered in trees, both coniferous and broad-leaved, it is criss-crossed with trails and paths, affords spectacular views over the city, and is especially beautiful in Autumn. But naturally, what brought me to the park was the squirrels.

Mont-Royal is home to at least three different species of arboreal rodent. The largest and most populous species appears to be the familiar Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), which exists in large numbers. I can’t be certain of this, however, as the boldness of this species makes them far easier to spot and therefore may skew any attempt to provide an accurate census. The squirrel pictured above has a beautiful pelt, showing a touch of red amidst the grey (not uncommon for this species). Grey squirrel dreys, which look like collections of leaves caught in the crook of branches, can be seen everywhere in the park if you know what you are looking for. 

02_eastern_chipmunk_tamias_striatus The smallest species present is the Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus). I think this is the first time I’ve seen chipmunks in the wild, and getting a photograph proved particularly difficult as I’m using the camera in my phone which has no appreciable zoom. Although arboreal rodents of the family scuridae like the squirrels, chipmunks actually live in underground burrows – the rocky sides of Mont-Royal seem to be an ideal habitat for them.

03_american_red_squirrel_pine_squirrel_t The third species is the American Red Squirrel, or Pine Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). This is a different red squirrel species to the one I am used to in the UK, but both red squirrel species share the common trait of being both smaller and more reticent than their grey cousins. I was very pleased to get the photo of this one, as it is not easy to photograph red squirrels without a telephoto lens. I have never before encountered red and grey squirrels in the same place (although it is possible in parts of Scotland) as the grey squirrels in the UK carry an infection which is fatal to the native red squirrels which are consequently endangered.

04_pleased_to_meet_youcropped The behaviour of the grey squirrels in the park varies according to where you encounter them. At the outside edge, or at the summit around the “Chalet” (a large and beautifully constructed hall), the greys are extremely accustomed to humans, and practically expect to be fed. When I sat on a wall on the summit, a nearby grey immediately came and sat with me to see if I had anything tasty to offer. The squirrel pictured was particularly friendly, and had no problem climbing up me to get food. 05_curiouscropped He seemed to be having a tougher time of life near the summit than the other squirrels – the grey squirrel pictured at the start of this article had an overlapping home range, and looked to be in considerably better health. I suspect he may have had low status in the squirrel society, and his amiability was driven by hunger – he was probably getting a smaller share of the handouts on account to being smaller, and therefore more easily chased away by other greys (in fact, the aforementioned squirrel tried to chase this little guy away from me, but I don’t reward this behaviour in semi-domesticated squirrels so it won him no advantage). 

06_cautious In the centre of the park, where the forest is densest, the greys behave much like wild squirrels, foraging for their own food among the leaf litter, as well as climbing along branches to pull seeds from the trees. They do not expect humans to be a source of food, and are therefore somewhat confused when one starts throwing nuts. 07_ill_have_that_thanksI do not know if this is apparent to someone who has not spent some time watching squirrels, but the squirrel pictured has a look of cautious interest on his face – he wants to know what’s going on, but he’s not too keen to trust me. As I was holding my hand out to win his trust, I was treated to an unexpected visitation: a small bird of the tit family flitted down and landed on my hand, picked a choice nut and flew off . There was a small flock of these birds, probably black-capped chickadees (Parus atricapillus), who took turns to land on my hand, pick something good, and then leave. Occasionally, they would find something that didn’t appeal, and throw it off my hand before picking something else. I have a short video of this behaviour, which apparently is not uncommon for this bird species. This short movie is unfortunately sideways, but nevermind.

08_up_and_down On my second trip to the park, I attempted to befriend this pair of female squirrels on the edge of the park – probably sisters born this year. However, a fat and obnoxious male, who may or may not have been related, kept arriving and chasing them off. I did not feed him, which left him feeling quite frustrated, and he eventually retreated up a tree to sulk. The two sisters came back down and reconnected with me, but were still too shy to eat from my hand. 

09_on_the_bench_2When I sat on a nearby bench, another grey immediately came and sat upon the bench with me. He had clearly been fed by someone from a bench before, as he seemed to know this game all too well. In fact, he was more than happy to clamber all over me to pick the nut of his choice from my hand, as this short video shows.

10_from_the_handcropped However, even this friendly little grey had nothing on the group of four squirrels (almost certainly siblings) I met near the summit that day. Grey squirrels are often suspicious of people on their own, but when they gather in groups they become more bold. 11_im_ready_for_my_close_upPartly this is probably the reassurance of a second opinion: if I judge you as not a threat, I could be wrong, but if we all judge you as not a threat, we can be more confident. Additionally, grey squirrels are great game players within their peer group, and this quartet positively excelled themselves competing to be more bold. This picture – which is not zoomed in any way – shows how close they were willing to let me come. 

12_from_the_tree A first for me, I was able to get one of this group to feed from my hand while hanging from a tree, which is extremely unusual behaviour for any squirrel. 13_hanging_on_slightly_blurred I also managed to persuade one of them to climb me as a tree, as this slightly blurry picture depicts – the squirrel in question is literally hanging from my arm. 14_the_restaurant_on_my_knee_slightly_blHaving them stop on my knee to feed was incredibly easy – normally it would take more than an hour of trust building with an urban squirrel to elicit this result.

The sun was setting, alas, so I had to bid them farewell and make my descent, heading off to Chu Chai, an excellent vegetarian Thai restaurant recommended to me by one of my readers for my first decent meal since I arrived in Montreal. If there's one thing my time in the park has taught me it's that I need to get a digital camera with a decent telephoto function. If anyone can recommend one, I'd welcome some advice.

I have been to many parks, and met many squirrels, but the squirrels of Parc du Mont-Royal have been exceptionally charming. If time allows, I hope to visit one more time before I leave the city.


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Here's a thread about cameras from another blog I read:

Probably more than you want to know, but I'm no camera expert. I have some sort of Olympus, which is "OK".

Also, great to see someone else fascinated by squirrels!

Thanks for the link, Paddy! And I'm glad to hear someone else appreciating my squirrel pieces as I feel wildly eccentric for posting them most of the time. :D

fantastically interesting blog.

there are zero native land-based mammals here in nz :)

But you have so many interesting bird species in New Zealand, Anthony - including Kea the Sheep Killing Parrot! Every country has it's wonders. ;)

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