Master impudence


WHEN first I read Phil Robinson's account of the Indian squirrel I thought that the writer had painted the little rodent too black. That was in the days when I lived in Northern India, where the squirrel is to outward appearance a highly respectable animal. In that part of the world he rarely ventures inside the bungalow. Hence I used to regard him as a pretty little creature, half bird, half mammal, a four-legged denizen of the trees, a quadruped companion of the fowls of the air, a light-hearted inhabitant of leafy bowers.

It is true that I recognized that the squirrel was not sweet-tempered, that upon the least provocation he displayed " anger insignificantly fierce," that his voice was not beautiful; but these drawbacks were, in my opinion, more than set off by the fact that he is always amusing and pretty to watch. A stay in Madras compelled me to change my opinion of the animal, and to admit frankly that Phil Robinson was right when he said that every action of the squirrel, the very whisking of its tail, is an offence. I now regard Sciurus palmarum as the most impudent of all " the Tribes on my Frontier." I am aware that many people regard the rascality of the crow as unsurpassable. It is nothing of the kind. I verily believe that the average Madras squirrel could give the local crow its ten worst sins and then easily prove itself the greater villain.

When a crow invades the bungalow it does so with a more or less guilty air. J. K. Jerome says that only cats and Nonconformists have consciences; I think that the Indian crow should be added to this list. In any case, I have noticed that when a crow is about to commit a felony in my bungalow, he approaches it unostentatiously: he does not court observation, he will not commit the crime if he knows that your eye is upon him.

The squirrel has no such scruples. Even as I write one of those villains is actually committing theft under my very nose. He is perfectly well aware that I am watching him : he does not care two straws for that, he knows that, without moving, I can do him no harm, so he keeps one bright, wicked little eye upon me while the other is fixed on the food of my grackle (Eulabes religiosa) or hill myna, as the species is popularly and incorrectly called. This bird has every day for its breakfast a plantain and a saucer of bread and milk. This latter is the object of the squirrel's designs. The nimble little rodent climbs up the leg of a bamboo table -: there is nothing, by the way, which a squirrel cannot climb -: and, having reached the cage, he inserts between the bars his two forepaws and thus abstracts, piece by piece, the myna's breakfast Strangely enough, the myna does not seem to resent the larceny. He sits on the perch and watches with an utter want of concern the barefaced abstraction of his property.

Now, I submit that, impudent as he is, the Indian crow would not invade my study and steal my bird's food while my eye was upon him. It is true that crows habitually commit larceny in my bungalow -: theft in a dwelling-house is, I believe, the correct name in India for this particular offence -: but they do so only when my back is turned or when I am sleeping the sleep of the just. Not only does the squirrel openly commit theft, but he glories in his misdeeds.

Yesterday I hurriedly entered my study and found a squirrel sitting on the table and chattering to himself at the top of his voice. I maintain that the most reckless crow would not dare to take up a position on my desk and proclaim the fact to the whole household by a series of loud and offensive " squawks."

What with the crows, the sparrows, and the squirrels, I literally have to fight for my daily chota haziri. The crows and sparrows attempt to steal only when I am asleep. The squirrels are bolder. When I am lying in bed awake, they creep into the room, climb up the leg of the table, and help themselves to the toast under my very eyes.

I sometimes sit up suddenly while Master Squirrel is in the act of grappling with a piece of toast that is reluctant to leave the rack. He bounds out of the room like greased lightning, and, as likely as not, upsets a cup in his alarm. When he is safely in the verandah, he turns round and abuses me roundly. Master Impudence never loses an opportunity of adding insult to injury.

But the language of the squirrel on such an occasion is as London milk is to neat whisky, when compared with what he says when "a lurking villain crow," who has been watching the theft from afar, pounces down upon him in the verandah and robs him of his booty. Then, indeed, is the wrath of the little mammal a sight for the gods!

It seems to me that the Madras squirrel is especially depraved. As I have already said, in Upper India the squirrels never, or, at any rate, very rarely, enter bungalows. It is true that in that part of the world the doors and windows are protected from the inroads of insects by chiks, but these are usually so ill-fitting as to form no sort of a barrier to a pushing squirrel. The fact of the matter is that the Madras squirrel is to the squirrel of other parts of India what the cockney is to the rustic, or the town sparrow is to his country cousin.

Colonel Cunningham bears me out in this. He states that in Calcutta they rarely invade the interior of houses, and he ought to know, for he lived there for thirty years. The Madras squirrel is as much at home among the rafters of a room or in the punka ropes as he is among the branches of a tree. He nests by preference in the bungalow, and, such are the ways of native architects and builders, that the interior of the bungalow furnishes endless eligible sites which are snatched up as eagerly as unlet houses in Madras at the beginning of the winter season.

Not being a dog in the manger and having no use for the various crannies under the roof, I should have no objection to the squirrels appropriating them for their nests if they did not expect me to find them building materials. That is the worst of a squirrel; you give him an inch, and he takes an ell; you allow him a free site for his nest, and he destroys a brand-new " Curzon " topee because he takes a fancy to the materials of which it is made.

Having constructed the nest with ill-gotten materials, Mr. and Mrs. Impudence proceed to stock it with young squirrels. The nest, I may say, is not much to boast of in the way of architecture; it is merely a mass of hay, wool, and soft fibrous material, in the middle of which is a hole. Here the youngsters first see the light. Two, three, or four are usually born at one time, and ugly little beasts they are. They are blind, and have not a hair on the body, but, curiously enough, the skin shows distinct signs of the light and dark stripes which are so characteristic of the adult.

It is, of course, a matter of common knowledge how the squirrel acquired his stripes. It was before the days of the British raj, when there were no bridges across the Ganges. Hanuman had to cross that sacred river on urgent business, and, no boat being available, the animals obligingly offered to make a living bridge for him.

Unfortunately, the backs of some, notably the porcu¬pine, were not quite so soft to walk upon as could be desired, so Hanuman slipped, and his fingers, when he fell, rested on the squirrel's back and made five dark marks on it, which have since remained.

The beauty of the squirrel is his tail. That is a most important organ. The animal does nothing without consulting it. Every time he utters his shrill, penetrating cry the tail beats time. A vibration of the caudal appendage is synchronous with every movement. It is also an index of the animal's state of mind. When a squirrel is enraged the tail performs wonderful gyrations. Jerdon says that " when alarmed the hairs of its tail are erected at right angles like a bottle brush." It is, perhaps, not superfluous to say, by way of comment, that the alarm in this case is that of the squirrel, not of the hairs of the tail!

Even the Madras squirrel has its redeeming features. Away from the bungalow it is a delightful creature -: as playful as a kitten and as full of spirits. Two or three squirrels delight to gather together in an open space and there indulge in play. One will come up behind another and pretend to bite his tail, whereupon he upon whom the prank is played jumps high into the air and dashes off, followed by his comrade. After a little run, the first squirrel turns suddenly round and faces his pursuer, who then jumps over him. Hide-and-seek is another popular game with squirrels.

Sciurus palmarum is a much smaller animal than he looks. He is mostly tail, and so weighs very little. Indeed so light is he that he can safely trust himself to any branch that will bear a myna. Squirrels delight to crawl about bushes and nibble the more succulent parts. When walking along by a hedge one often sees a branch moving like a reed shaken by the wind, and, on approach, discovers that a squirrel is the cause of the movement. Most squirrels have a roosting-place or "dray" in some aged tree -: often a tamarind or a banyan. As a rule they select a tree which is nearly hollow, of which the gnarled trunk is riddled with holes. Thus there are many entrances to the nest.

Usually quite a colony lives in one tree, and as the sun is setting the little mammals are fond of chasing each other about the tree, dashing in and out of the various holes in the trunk. There is such a tree in the compound of the Adyar Club at Madras, which the squirrels and the spotted owlet (Athene drama) have altogether appropriated. Before it is quite dark the squirrels retire to their lair, where they enjoy sweet repose until the sun again shows his face. They then emerge and bask for a little in his comfortable rays. The sun bath over, the members of the colony leave the tree, one by one, each to follow his own devices and desires.

Bombay Ducks; An Account Of Some Of The Every-day Birds And Beasts Found In A Naturalist's Eldorado
Dewar, Douglas. Bombay ducks: an account of some of the every-day birds and beasts found in a naturalist's Eldorado, 1906.
Title in Book: 
Master impudence
Book Author: 
Douglas Dewar
Page No: 
Common name: 
Master Impudence

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