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Behind a big old house, in a big old garden, in a big old tree, lived the happiest grey squirrel in the world.
Well, that’s not quite true: He lived in three trees.
On nights that were warm and beautiful, he slept high in the swaying top of the oak tree, as close to the stars as he could get. In the thick beech tree, a hole in the crook of a branch led down, down, almost to the heart of the big giant, where he slept away the coldest nights snug, dry, and bundled round with fluffy bits of leaves. But his favorite nest was in the maple tree close to the house, with its crazy, criss-crossing branches.
The grey squirrel loved sleeping in the maple tree. Every morning he would wake, stretch, and climb out of his sturdy little nest of twigs and leaves. Then he scrambled down, just a few feet, to the bird feeder. But before he could eat, he had to squeeze between two very tight branches – first his head, then his front legs, then his middle, then his back legs, and then his tail. After that he could shimmy down a long wire, sit on one of the big perches, and enjoy the juicy black-oil sunflower seeds.
The little birds never bothered him. They never came to the garden, because the red-tailed hawk, who lived in the forest nearby, came by the garden every day to hunt! But this didn’t bother the grey squirrel either.
The old trees had grown so large that their branches almost touched, like one big tent-top over the whole garden. The grey squirrel could run in circles all around the garden without ever coming into the open where the hawk could catch him. In fact, on some days he did it on purpose; just kept that hawk going round and round until he finally gave up and landed in the top of a tree, panting in anger.
So at meal times, the grey squirrel enjoyed having the feeder all to himself. Then he shimmied back up the wire and squeezed between the branches backwards, just for fun – first his tail, then his back legs, then his middle, then his front legs, and then his head. He usually took a nap after breakfast, or scrambled around to the oak tree to gaze at the sky and think sky-gazing thoughts.
One morning the grey squirrel woke to the sound of twittering. He wasn’t sure where the noise was coming from, so he finished his stretches, climbed down the tree, and squeezed between the branches – first his head, then his front legs, then his middle, then his back legs, and then his tail. There, to his great surprise, a family of finches were eating breakfast at the feeder. His feeder!
“Shoo, now!” He chattered at them as he shimmied down the wire. “All this twittering, when I’m trying to have a peaceful breakfast! Shoo!”
The finches politely left the feeder, but they all perched on a nearby twig and watched with their bright eyes as he ate.
The grey squirrel found this quite ruined his appetite. After only a few minutes of munching, he squeezed back between the branches – first his tail, then his back legs, then his middle, then his front legs, and then his head – and climbed back to his nest to sulk.
While he sulked, he listened to the finches twitter, and he complained to himself: “It’s just not fair! This has been my own feeder for days and days, and now those twittering finches are going to eat all the seeds! Why, I expect they will all be gone by dinner-time!”
Now this was hardly likely because, as you probably know, finches – even a family of finches – don’t eat very much. But the more the grey squirrel thought about those birds eating his seeds, the angrier he became. And the angrier he became, the more determined he was to do something about it. Finally, he thought of a plan.
When the grey squirrel went down for lunch, the finches were still there. He squeezed himself between the branches – first his head, then his front legs, then his middle, then his back legs, and then his tail. He shimmied down the wire with one last angry chatter at the finches. Then he began to stuff his cheeks!
He stuffed until his mouth was full, and then he stuffed some more. He stuffed until his cheeks were full, and then he stuffed some more. He stuffed those sunflower seeds in until his cheeks were stretched out wide as his whiskers.
“Now,” he thought to himself, “I’ll just take these back up to my nest. And I’ll make a few more trips, too, until I have all the seeds up where those birds can’t steal them!”
The grey squirrel shimmied up the wire, and squeezed back between the branches in his usual way – first his tail, then his back legs, then his middle, then his front legs, and then – well, then he got stuck! All those seeds had made his cheeks much too big to fit between the branches.
He tried to squeak in surprise, but he couldn’t, because of his mouth being so full. So he braced his front legs against the branch and gave a mighty pull. It made his cheeks ache, and stretched his neck until he feared his head might pop off. But there he stayed, with most of him on top of the branches, and his head underneath.
Just then, he heard a chirp. He tilted his head so as to see sideways, over his cheek, and found a finch regarding him solemnly from a nearby twig. The grey squirrel wanted to tell him to go away but, since he couldn’t talk, he closed his eyes and pretended the finch wasn’t there.
The finch hopped closer, and chirped again. Then it began to twitter anxiously, but the squirrel would not open his eyes. It cheeped, hopping up and down, fluttering its wings, but still the squirrel would not look. Finally, the finch seized one of his whiskers and gave a sharp tug!
Now the grey squirrel opened his eyes, in order to give the finch a Most Furious And Indignant Scowl, and saw, swooping from the sky, the red-tailed hawk!
The squirrel began to spit out the sunflower seeds, in order to get his head free. But he had so many seeds in his cheeks that, by the time the last seeds spattered to the ground and he pulled his head free, the wind from the hawk’s wings rustled the leaves like a coming storm.
Then the grey squirrel made a jump that would have broken all of the world’s records for long-jumping squirrels, if anyone had been there to measure it, and ran round the garden with the hawk close behind him. He reached the big beech tree just as the hawk’s heavy claws snapped round his tail. With a wiggle and a lunge, the grey squirrel dove into his hollow nest and plumped to the very bottom, leaving a great tuft of tail behind in the hawk’s clutches.
The hawk was very disappointed, and sat for some time looking hungrily at the finches, who had wisely removed to the very top of the swaying oak. Finally, he went away.
The grey squirrel stayed in his hollow nest for three days, and I am not sure whether he has yet had the courage to apologize properly to the finches, and to thank them for saving his life. But, he has been extremely polite to them lately, and I am hopeful that he will soon do the right thing.
Original illustration by Bryce Lowe