Squirrel Watch: Empty Nest Again

I took my last two squirrels of this season to the Center today to join their four “siblings” in an outdoor enclosure for the next few weeks until I can release them all back into the wild.

Speaking of wild, that’s the way we’re describing this season after the huge onslaught of the wee critters we received. I don’t know what the final count is (and there could still be stragglers), but we usually get around 50 in March. This year there were more than 80!

One theory as to why we had such an increase in our numbers is because last year was a banner year for acorns, meaning more food for Moms, meaning more of them survive.

I hadn’t actually planned to take any, since I wanted to be available to do two sets in the summer/fall season, since that’s usually the heavier season. But after so many came in, we needed every home possible to give the squirrels the best possible care.

I started in the first week of March by babysitting my co-volunteer Carla’s fox squirrels for a week while she had guests visiting. Fox squirrels have reddish fur and rounder faces than the eastern greys, which are the most common type in this area. In fact, we usually get very few foxes in the center (and even fewer western greys, our only native species), but this year was an exception for those as well. I think we got three or four times the usual number of foxes, another sign of the strangeness of this season.

I got my own a couple of weeks later—three easterns (one set of two and a single). I also took a single fox squirrel, but that was just temporary because you can’t raise the different species together. So the plan was for me to just watch him for a few days until some more came in that we could add him to and give to another home care volunteer.

Sadly, that never happened. Even though he seemed healthy when I got him, and he was eating well for his size, the next day he started breathing really heavily. I thought he might have pneumonia (I hadn’t yet seen a squirrel with it, but it is a common problem), so I took him to a couple of more experienced rehabbers to evaluate him. While at the second one, he suddenly went into total shock and within a few minutes he was gone. The fact that it happened so quickly meant he probably had some sort of internal injury or neurological damage, and that there was nothing anyone could have done to prevent it. Of course, that doesn’t make you feel better when it happens.

The next day I got a fourth eastern grey—a female who had arrived at the Center extremely cold (which means she was probably outdoors for a while) and severely infested with fleas. Carla had stabilized her for a couple of days, then I added her to my set. She was very listless for a few days, probably due to anemia from the blood loss from the flea bites. She wasn’t thriving, but she didn’t seem to be getting any worse, until a couple of days later when I found her gasping for air. This time it WAS pneumonia (and just AWFUL to watch!). Fortunately I had some antiobiotics on hand from when I thought the fox squirrel might have it, so I was able to give her some right away. Then I picked her up and looked her directly in the eye (she only had one open by that point) and said, “I’m doing everything I can to fight for you. But YOU can not give up on me!”

Well, I’ll tell you, that antibiotic stuff is a wonder drug! Within a couple of hours she was breathing normally and by the next day she was as active and energetic as the others! (It was at this point that she earned the nickname, Miracle Girl…)

Over the next week or so, I got a couple more, bringing my total up to six! (Usually in the spring season, no one has more than four in a set.) They were all doing really well. Then I had to go away for the weekend, so I handed them off to another babysitter. Unfortunately, while I was gone, one of the little guys also died suddenly. Like with my fox squirrel, it was probably some sort of internal damage, and I felt as bad for the woman who was looking after them as I did for the little guy himself.

I didn’t have the smaller set for long, though. Within a couple of days, another male came into the Center. He was a little smaller than my guys, but bigger than other ones still coming in, so my set was the most logical one for him to join. He had blood around his nose, which worried me, but it cleared up by the next day.

Everything was going well again. I mean, doesn’t this guy look pretty darn content?

By this time, they were all just about weaned and were eating lots of solid food, and it was only going to be a few more days before I planned to put them in an outdoor enclosure. Then I discovered Miracle Girl behaving very oddly. I found her sitting in the cage with most of her body in the water bowl. At first I thought it was funny, because they will get so engrossed in what they’re eating that they’re completely oblivious to anything else going on in their surroundings. But it quickly became clear that that wasn’t the case here.

I took her to see Ann, the wonderful vet tech who works with us, and discovered she was having petit mal seizures, where she basically just zoned out from the world for brief periods. Ann told me that it was possible that these were caused by some sort of infection, so she gave me some medications to treat her with. But she also warned that it could be due to neurological damage or an injury of some sort, in which case she would probably have to be euthanized, since she wouldn’t be releasable. (You can’t have a squirrel climbing up a 200-foot palm tree only to have a seizure halfway up.)

I was pretty devastated at that point. And the next day she seemed even more listless and out of it, so I was really worried about what was going to happen. But then I told MYSELF that I couldn’t give up on her at this point and I just had to keep giving her the meds and hope that they would do the trick. And, well, they did!!!

I put her back on formula as well, to ensure she was getting a good mix of nutrients. She was tired for a few days, but she started eating more solid food as well, and then climbing and jumping around the cage again. By this point, I had taken four of the other squirrels to the Center, and kept the smallest one so that she wouldn’t be alone (and because I figured he could use the extra development time as well).

She finished her antiobiotics last weekend and Ann suggested I keep her through the week to make sure she didn’t have any kind of a relapse. But she’s been totally fine ever since. You can see her, “I ain’t gonna let nothin’ stop me from gettin’ back out into the real world where I belong!” attitude here:

So I packed her and her brother up this morning and put them in with the other four. We had set up two nest boxes in case there was any conflict between them, but they were accepted back into the fold without a problem. It probably helped that I had done a t-shirt swap a few times while they were separated, i.e. I had taken a t-shirt that smelled like the two at home and put it in the nest box with the other four, and brought one of theirs home for inside the cage. This was Carla’s idea, and a very smart one I must say!

So now I’m empty nesting again. While I’m thrilled that everything’s back on track, it is a little weird to not have them in the room next door. I keep wanting to go and throw a few pieces of broccoli in the cage. (Miracle Girl was addicted to the stuff!)

Now we get a bit of a break. But the next season starts up again in late July/early August, so I won’t be squirrel-free for long…

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