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Tag Archive: Colorado

Oct 28

Red and Autumn are savvy dogs

We were hiking in the Rocky Mountains when Red appeared from behind a huge mossy boulder, the kind of rock formation you often see in the Colorado high country.

I was expecting a bear and was somewhat prepared for that potential encounter, if one can be prepared to meet a bear.

Instead, a great red-haired street-tough dog, a stray, growled at me. He came closer. I did not move a muscle.

About then, my brother stepped out of the woods with bear stick in hand and called to Red.

Apparently, he and Red knew one another.

John threw Red a doggy treat.

I learned later that my brother always keeps doggy treats in his pocket in case Red wanders through the forest and surprises him.

The thought crossed my mind that doggy treats in one’s pocket might possibly attract bears as well, but I dismissed that notion for the moment anyway.

I was aware that in the fall bears are consuming 20,000 calories a day in preparation for their winter hibernation.

Doggy treats could do nicely for the bears as an appetizer for their main course, the human carrying the doggy biscuits.

“Don’t worry,” John said. “No bears around right now. Don’t worry about the dog either. Red has been abused, dumped in the mountains, and is actually afraid of you.”

Red, adopted by a kindly neighbor who feeds him, still runs wild in the woods. He is as much a part of the mountain wildlife as are the bears.

John asked me to look across the clearing.

“There’s Autumn, Red’s friend. I wondered if she was with him today,” John said.

Autumn is a motley sort of animal, an Australian sheep dog with a black and white and grayish coat and haunting eyes. She never steps too far from the safety of the woods and rarely moves into a clearing.

That is, until Red signals her through some uncanny method of communication between the two of them that it is OK to travel further.

What a peculiar relationship these oddly-paired dogs have.

Red travels nearly five miles one way every few days to visit Autumn at her home across the mountain. Then, the two make the five-mile trek back to spend a couple of days with Red’s adoptive humans.

When the time to go arrives, and they somehow instinctively know that, Red and Autumn begin their journey back across the mountain to Autumn’s family.

Red may stay a night or two with her or come straight back.

No one knows why or how the two communicate so well.

After awhile without her, Red heads off in her direction to escort her to his place.

My brother will say, “Well, there goes Red. He must be going to get Autumn.”

She always comes with him, but only for a day or two.

When she is ready, Autumn signals Red that it is time to walk her home.

Once she stayed too long, and her worried humans came looking and drove her back in the truck. It was too far and too dangerous for her to walk alone.

Red knows that, and he is there to protect her.

On one occasion, while visiting at Red’s place, Autumn was attacked by a bear.

Red, of course, came to the rescue, although Autumn suffered an injury to her leg. Happily, she survived.

I was thinking about all this and how amazing these two creatures are when I realized I was standing in a clearing alone halfway up a mountain.

My brother, my sister-in-law, and my husband had climbed much higher up the mountain on some exploratory mission, and I was left in an open meadow.

Choosing to stay behind due to my arthritic knees, I realized all too quickly that I was without help, and I was standing near a tree where bears had recently discovered a honeycomb. The evidence of their meal was left on the ground.

I sensed I was not entirely alone, so I began to turn slowly watching my backside in all directions.

No bear stick. The mountain climbers had them.

No Pepper Spray. It was in the truck.

Then, at the edge of the woods, I spotted Red. He did not bark. He did not want a treat. He did not move.

He was on bear watch and guard duty, not for Autumn this time, but for me.


Click here for a follow-up to this column

Oct 14

Autumn brings sighting of strange squirrel

When I saw a strange black critter sitting on a pumpkin in my yard, I wondered if it was the full Harvest Moon or the promise of Halloween that was playing tricks on my eyes.

My aging vision did not deceive me.

I called my son to verify this bizarre sighting.

He saw it, too.

A black squirrel with haunting eyes and a sleek, gorgeous coal-black coat was right there in our back yard scampering around the walnut tree.

I ran straight to the internet to learn what I could about this mysterious creature.

One of the most interesting stories I found was from the Chicago Wilderness Magazine in which Nancy Shepherdson wrote this:

“A black squirrel is one of nature’s great ‘gotcha’ moments, as if something shaped like a squirrel couldn’t possibly be that color. Those who have never seen a black squirrel before often describe their first sighting as something magical. Some quite literally doubt their senses.”

If you have seen one of these exotic creatures, you may have been as surprised as I was.

If not, you might not believe they exist.

For a long time, I thought these strange squirrels lived only in the North, but my cousin Dorothy says she has seen them many times right here in the Midwest.

Verification of the black squirrel sighting was important to me.

Once before, in this exact spot, I came face-to-face with a whitetail buck with a 10-point rack.

No one believed me then. This time, I found a witness.

Interestingly, the black squirrel with his shiny, thick winter fur did not appear to be afraid of me.

The black squirrel, aggressive and quick, was dominating his territory and protecting his walnut stash with surprising ferocity.

The red one did not dare approach the tree.

My web search also revealed that a University of Illinois-Chicago biology professor launched a study in 1999 called Project Squirrel in which he studied these critters.

Joel Brown conducted the study to find out which types of squirrels live where.

He calls the black squirrel, also known as the black fox squirrel, “the most conspicuous wild mammal in an urban setting”

Brown quips, “Gray squirrels go to college. Fox squirrels go to the suburbs.”

By that he means that gray squirrels are more likely to live on large college campuses or in parks while the fox squirrels, both red and black, live on the margins of urban areas in cemeteries, and wooded back yards.

Some observers indicate that grays are more skittish, but these black ones will take on cats or humans as they walk by. They have claws, too.

Scientists have apparently decided that the black squirrel is a rare genetic condition and is really just a morph of the gray.

In my backyard (and I live in town), I have had the pleasure of seeing a black squirrel, the big buck, 28 deer at one counting, a stout, cute, bear-like ground hog, wild turkey, Canada geese, raccoons, numerous red fox, and coyotes. There’s a bobcat around some of the time, too.

It used to be that people enjoyed bird watching in their back yards, and that was about the extent of their wildlife experience. Now, according to Professor Brown, we have “urban wildlife…an urban game park, and it’s every bit as exciting as the Serengeti.”

Of course, that does not address the nuisance component of having wild things that decide to take up residence on our lawns.

Soon, I am going to Colorado to visit my brother where he has regular stopovers in his back yard from black bears.

He says they just look at you and walk away.

Likely story.

This is taking urban wildlife enjoyment way too far for me.

I am taking my Pepper Spray.

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