JUNE (Playing)

Mistletoe's kids in JuneBy early June Mistletoe's young also have discovered the green trash can's pleasures. Inside it they burrow through a world of napkins and paper boxes, playing a 3-D game of hide-and-seek. Best of all, sometimes scattered through the mess they find goodies on which to nibble.

When a morning's trash-can games are finished, the three young squirrels perch on the big, curved branch beneath their new nest, sniffing and licking one another: Hollyhock's left ear smells like Pepsi Cola! Ivy has grape- jellied toes! Just sniff that streak of yellow mustard on Persimmon's tail!

Other times, the young squirrels play chase in the Black Walnut. Up and down, around and around, one after the other, around and around, up and down... The three squirrels are a team and one squirrel never strays far from the others, and every squirrel's happiness depends very much on how much attention it receives from it nest mates.

Even rain doesn't keep our squirrels from their games. If a squirrel meets a leaf with a drop of water dangling from its drip-tip, it's a good discovery. It's something completely new and it suggests plenty of tantalizing possibilities for play.

For instance, such a droplet can be lapped onto the tongue (how cold!) or simply allowed to soak into a fuzzy paw (how wet!). However, the funniest thing to do Yes,with water droplets is to run onto branches with hundreds of wet leaves, every leaf holding its own shimmering droplets -- and then to jar the limb so that all the silvery droplets shower down through the air below... And if you run through lots of wet leaves how chillingly drenched you become! And after a good chase through wet leaves, how wonderful to perch on a limb in warm sunlight...

When not playing, sometimes the young squirrels "go to school." On foraging trips, Mistletoe shows them how to find food, and what to do with it. Of course, one important food-finding place is the Alexanders' feeding station, where the nestlings become sunflower-seed-opening experts.

Classes take place inside the trees, too. Among the boughs of several kinds of trees Mistletoe shows how fruits and seeds can be eaten, and demonstrates the special techniques needed for dealing with each. Yes, nowadays Hollyhock, Ivy and Persimmon spend many, many hours learning how to be squirrels.

One day Mistletoe and her family go on a field trip. Descending the Sugar Maple's trunk beside the Alexanders' feeding station, Mistletoe notices a small bird-nest inside the Privet hedge. Four feet high, it's a Yellow Warbler's nest. The Yellow Warbler is a five-inch long, yellow bird with rust-colored streaks on its chest. Its neat, little nest is constructed of fine, interwoven grass-blades, fuzzy thistle-down, and silver-gray fibers from the stem of the dogbane-weed. Seeing this nest, Mistletoe leaves her family at the base of the Sugar Maple and climbs into the Privet bush's slender branches. Soon she's peeping over the edge of the Yellow Warbler's nest.

Inside the nest, covered with soft, brownish down, sit four tiny Yellow Warbler nestlings. Shocked and confused when Mistletoe's head suddenly looms above them, the nestlings cower in their nest's bottom, not moving, and not making a peep. And what can they do when Mistletoe bends her head into the nest, takes a nestling into her mouth, and drops to the ground?

Chip, chip, chip, chip...!

Returning to her nest, the horrified mother Yellow Warbler drops the beakful of cankerworms she'd planned to feed to her young, cries her alarm call, and all the other birds at the feeding station pause in their eating and look around. The mother Yellow Warbler spots Mistletoe and her family, and takes off after them. Mistletoe, still with the baby bird in her mouth, leads her family up through the Sugar Maple, and with the big leap, onto the roof. As the squirrels scamper toward the roof's far corner, the mother Yellow Warbler ineffectually dive-bombs them.

Chip, chip, chip, chip, chip...!

Only when the squirrels cross the house's rooftop and skulk into dark shadows beneath the closely overhanging Black Oak's boughs does the mother warbler's concern for her remaining nestlings cause her to break off the attack. Briefly she flits and calls from one spot above the house's crest, but this does not good. Then she rushes back to her remaining nestlings in the Privet hedge.

She is not on hand to watch when Mistletoe, Hollyhock, Ivy and Persimmon eat her baby.

******

Running, bounding, leaping through great empty spaces, sailing through the wind, their paws pat-pat-pat-pat upon tree branches, bark fls this?ying, leaves shaking, the chase, the chase, the chase, three young squirrels around the trunk and around again, up and down, across the ground, nip-and-tuck, get caught, tussle, tumble, chuckle and then chase again, running, bounding, leaping through great empty spaces, and experiencing a thousand shades of green...

But, what's this? Seeing something interesting, Hollyhock stops in his tracks, and so do his playmates. Suspended among weeds beside the street below them, it's something white and funny-shaped. Curiosity-struck, the three squirrels clamber down the tree and sneak toward their discovery. It's a discarded plastic harness from a six-pack of bottled root-beer.

Persimmon skulks toward the silent oddity but before coming close enough to sniff, abruptly he leaps backward, as if he expects the plastic refuse to snap his nose off. Hollyhock approaches next; he's braver, and he touches his nose to the thing. Then Persimmon returns and he sniffs it, too, but comes no closer. Finally Ivy arrives, sniffs and adventurously pokes her head through one of the six big, round holes.

Nothing on the other side...

But, in withdrawing her head, the plastic harness catches behind her ears. With her back paw, Ivy tries to push the thing off, but the paw just slips through another of the harness's holes, so now her head is stuck in one hole and a hind leg is caught in another. With her other back paw Ivy takes another swipe at the uncooperative trash, succeeding only in entangling her other back paw in yet a third hole.

Now the situation is no longer a game. Now Ivy understands that she is ensnared in this wretched thing, as if it were a trap.

Instinctively Ivy flicks the danger signal with her tail, sending Hollyhock and Persimmon scampering up the tree. Seeing her brothers running away, Ivy also wants to run, but when she tries to follow she only trips over the harness and falls onto her side. Discovering herself so frustratingly helpless, she screams, paws and bites at this terrible, white, plastic monstrosity, and rolls over and over, clear into the weeds beside the road.

Several times this hysterical fighting exhausts her, leaving her lying and panting, but each time she revives and battles the harness again. However, each fight leaves her weaker, and each rest is longer than the last. Finally the time comes when she lies semiconscious among the weeds, her eyes half open, and her heart beating irregularly.

Slowly her alertness returns, for she is a young squirrel with amazing resiliency and, though she no longer has the energy or spirit to fight, to her surprise, she finds that if she holds her head to one side and slowly and carefully tries to stand up, she can actually regain her feet!

Once she does stand, what a strange sight she is, for now her head and a front leg emerge from one hole, her tail and back leg poke through another, each of the other legs also is caught in a hole, and the rims of the two remaining holes rise above her back as if they were white, plastic, butterfly wings.

Despite her ridiculous appearance, Ivy finds that if she moves slowly she can actually walk. She approaches the tree trunk on which her brothers await, eyeing her suspiciously. Perhaps, if she continued to take her time, she could even climb the tree to be with her brothers... Ivy eventually manages this, inch by inch, until she's on a large limb with her brothers around her.

As if to make sure that this is still his sister, Hollyhock draws near Ivy and sniffs. Then Persimmon also sniffs. Each brother sniffs beneath Ivy's tail and then each sniffs her plastic wings. Much calmer now, Ivy licks the single paw she can reach, and grooms herself as best she can.

Before long, almost as if nothing has happened, the three squirrels decide to return to the leaf-nest. They take the American Elm route, Ivy with her plastic wings coming last.

Arghhh!

High on the pathway to home, deep within a Black Oak, the brothers turn to see Ivy hanging in midair, a plastic wing snagged on the stump of a broken-off twig. Ivy screams and squirms and for a long time the others orbit among the branches around her, but they cannot help. The Blue Jay comes with its nerve-wracking alarm calls. Tinkerbell the dog saunters up beneath the tree, sets her rear end on the ground, and watches. Mistletoe comes, too, but neither can she do anything to help. No, no one can undo the hapless Ivy hanging in her plastic snare, like a parachutist hung in the air.

At dusk, Ivy sinks into the final stage of shock. And so, the rest of the family returns home.

Continue to JULY