Squirrel Tales

Evergreen Cone Scales, Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes
Evergreen Cone Scales
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes

Nature Rings, Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes Nature Rings
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes

The recent snows have made the sledding hill at Edith Bowen Laboratory School on the campus of Utah State University a popular place, but without snow, children flock at recess to the wild area under the oak trees to harvest acorns. I’ve invited one of these students, a seven-year-old first grader named Lila, to explain this phenomenon:

“You get an acorn and you rub the pointy bottom part and keep doing it for a bit and then you can put it on whatever finger it fits on and it turns into a nature ring.”

They trade them and then squirrel the rings away in their lockers. Sometimes they stop to notice the squirrels scolding above them in the trees, and one day I sat with them to appreciate a noisy one. Nibbling away, its eight black claws rotated the little nugget it was holding. Standing erect so I could see the whitish belly fur and bushy tail, it kept me in its sights as I sketched its silhouette and details in my nature journal.

The Natural History Museum of Utah sponsored another Squirrel Fest during the first week of December, and I should have been better prepared to identify it so I could participate in that project during the same month as the Christmas Bird Count. The NHMU website reports that more than 900 Utah citizen scientists watched for and collected data on fox squirrels and other squirrels in 2023. I know now that my squirrel wasn’t a fox squirrel native to the eastern U.S. Those critters are moving in. Actually, they have been spreading throughout northern Utah since 2011. I know mine was probably not that target species because the fox squirrel is larger and has a bright yellow or orange belly and a long, very bushy tail.

Here’s another story. One June afternoon last summer in the Cache National Forest, I stumbled upon a massive pile of evidence that squirrels had been busy, having stashed their food finds and then unpacking them. The pile of evergreen cone scale leftovers was over three feet tall. I had seen middens at the base of trees before, but never had I seen a pile this incredible. Even though it was a snow pile that the cone scales covered, the insulation slowing the melt, it was still monstrous.

As most of the students on the first day launching my first ever university writing class described themselves as writers with words like decent, ok, alright, unpolished, and mediocre, I thought about that pile of potential. They have stories, piles of stories to tell and teach, squirreled away maybe, but ready to thaw.

Just like Kate DiCamillo’s superpowered squirrel Ulysses in her children’s novel Flora and Ulysses, we all have stories to write. DiCamillo wrote, “He would write and write. He would make wonderful things happen. Some of it would be true. All of it would be true. Well….Most of it would be true.”

This year on January 21 we celebrate Squirrel Appreciation Day. But whether you watch and write about squirrels or anything else, we think it is time for you to get writing stories just as magical as nature rings made of acorns at recess.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Shannon Rhodes, and I am Lila Hoggan.


Images: Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & © Friend Weller, https://upr.org/
Text:     Shannon Rhodes and Lila Hoggan, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University https://edithbowen.usu.edu/
Additional Reading Links: Shannon Rhodes

Additional Reading:

Wild About Utah Pieces by Shannon Rhodes, https://wildaboututah.org/author/shannon-rhodes/

DiCamillo, Kate. Flora and Ulysses. 2013. Candlewick Press. https://www.candlewick.com/cat.asp?mode=book&isbn=0763687642

Greene, Jack. Intelligent Tree Squirrels. Wild About Utah, Oct. 17, 2022. https://wildaboututah.org/intelligent-tree-squirrels/

Larese-Casanova, Mark. Nutcrackers and Squirrels: Farmers of the Forest. Wild About Utah, Aug. 26, 2013. https://wildaboututah.org/nutcrackers-squirrels-farmers-forests/

Natural History Museum of Utah. Utah Fox Squirrels. https://nhmu.utah.edu/citizen-science/utah-fox-squirrels

Strand, Holly. Rocky the Flying Squirrel. Wild About Utah, Nov. 26, 2009. https://wildaboututah.org/rocky-the-flying-squirrel/


Fireweed: Gambel Oak Quercus gambelii Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Gambel Oak
Quercus gambelii
Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

Fireweed Epilobium angustifolium Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer Fireweed
Epilobium angustifolium
Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

Today snow blankets Utah’s forest floors, yet just a few months ago wildfire management teams were battling blazes across the state. With over 1,000 wildfires burning an estimated 63,000 acres in Utah in 2021, it was not difficult to find one. As I observed plumes of the Bennion Creek fire from a safe, comfortably cool spot atop Manti-LaSal’s Skyline Drive last June, Disney’s Bambi wildfire came to mind. Wildlife no doubt scurried while humans raced against windy conditions, hoping to contain as others evacuated, all bracing for inevitable short-term as well as long-term impacts. Smokey the Bear campaigns have called for prevention and suppression since the 1940s, and reports showed that human-caused wildfires were fewer in 2021 than previous years, yet nature itself is still sometimes to blame.

Yesterday as I visited with a close friend grieving her daughter’s recent and abrupt passing, we reflected on a summertime adventure we shared through an alpine burn scar, blackened, silent, and desolate. We wandered again through our memory of acres and acres of torched forest. Regally standing amid the charred stumps and nothing else, though, were thousands of beautifully bright pink-purple flower colonies. William Shakespeare’s poetic
“Here enclos’d, in cinders lie.
Death is now the Phoenix’ nest,”
describes this hardy plant named fireweed, not for any fiery red-orange blossoms but for being a colonizer of recently-scorched landscapes. Long before grasses, Gambel oak, and Lodgepole cone sprouts start to emerge out of the ashes, flashy fireweed will grow to sometimes nine feet tall. The flowers bloom from bottom up, and when the top flower bud blooms, winter might be just six weeks away. Also called willowherb, fireweed seed heads are long pods filled with silky feather tufts that unfold to carry tens of thousands of seeds on the wind, signaling the end of the season. As time passes, other plants will take over as successive vegetation cycles do, but once you’ve seen majestic fireweed thrive in an annihilated forest, you never forget it. Wildlife loves fireweed just as much as I do. Deer, elk, moose, and even grizzly bear along with all sorts of pollinators are attracted to her deliciously vibrant color.

January is a quiet reprieve from summer blazes, a time when renewal and rebirth is our focus. Right now forest phoenix fireweed seeds are just awaiting the thaw, eager to bring solitary but stately vitality to otherwise dismal gloom. Out of something devastating comes a little bit of lovely. After World War II bombings, fireweed bloomed in the heart of London for the first time in decades. I imagine my friend’s Crystal and fireweed would agree: Why be a princess among others when you can be the queen?

I’m Shannon Rhodes, and I am Wild About Utah.


Images: Courtesy & Copyright © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & © Friend Weller, https://upr.org/
Text:     Shannon Rhodes, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University https://edithbowen.usu.edu/
Additional Reading Links: Courtesy Shannon Rhodes

Additional Reading:

Ballard, Heidi L., Emily Evans, Victoria E. Sturtevant, and Pamela Jakes (2012). The Evolution of Smokey Bear: Environmental Education About Wildfire for Youth, The Journal of Environmental Education, 43:4, 227-240, DOI: 10.1080/00958964.2011.644352, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00958964.2011.644352?casa_token=4uSEKZ1Po3QAAAAA%3Al5k-XuM1LI80cCIZD3Ywg4E_3shIs8S-h-iVQ7uumEhvN-mGmaogdve04Y9tEeUqlxA2Li0Y3PVv

Boling, Josh. Fire. Wild About Utah, August 13, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/fire/

Capdeville, Sarah. Fireweed: A Colorful Reminder of Change. (2015). https://www.mtpr.org/arts-culture/2015-06-05/fireweed-a-colorful-reminder-of-change

Collard, Sneed B. Fire Birds: Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests. (2015). Bucking Horse Books. https://www.amazon.com/Fire-Birds-Valuing-Natural-Wildfires/dp/0984446079

Green, Jack. Holy Smokes! (2021). https://wildaboututah.org/holy-smokes/

Mullen, Luba. How Trees Survive and Thrive After a Fire. (2017). https://www.nationalforests.org/our-forests/your-national-forests-magazine/how-trees-survive-and-thrive-after-a-fire

Olsen, Shawn and Debbie Amundsen. Gambel Oak in the Landscape. (2021). USU Extension. https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1905&context=extension_curall

Peery, Lexi. Utah Saw a Decrease in Human-caused Wildfires. November 2, 2021. https://www.kuer.org/health-science-environment/2021-11-02/utah-saw-a-decrease-in-human-caused-wildfires-this-year-but-officials-say-fire-season-isnt-going-away

Shakespeare, William. The Phoenix and the Turtle. (1601). https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45085/the-phoenix-and-the-turtle-56d2246f86c06

U.S. Department of Agriculture. Fireweed. (2016). https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_PLANTMATERIALS/publications/wapmspg12854.pdf

Vizgirdas, Edna. U.S. Forest Service Plant of the Week: Fireweed. https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/chamerion_angustifolium.shtml

Wells, Kathryn and Timothy J. Haney. D is for Disaster. (2017). https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1536504217714262 Volume: 16 issue: 2, page(s): 62-64. (2017).

Wild About Utah Posts by Shannon Rhodes https://wildaboututah.org/author/shannon-rhodes/