Saturday, May 30, 2009

Smoky the Squirrel

Last week a couple of friends of mine at work watched in amazement when a ground squirrel set our field on fire. In fact it did such a good job that the two of them, shovels in hand, had to scramble to keep the fire from getting out of control. At first they attempted digging a grass free perimeter down wind from the blaze. In the end, the fire department had to come and put it out. When I asked the fire captain if he’d ever seen anything like this before, he said, “no”. What was even more remarkable is that he said it with a straight face.

It all happened innocently enough. My friends were trying to bring the rodent population under control in our research farm where the small furry creatures were causing all kinds of problems. We had tried using baits but they were only partially effective, and to make matters worse, some of the barn owls that had recently taken up residence in our bird boxes, were dying from the poison-baited rodents. We had also tried killing the rodents with traps but these are quite time-consuming to set. So this time we decided we needed to go to the next level - using military methods. We decided to bomb them out.

The USDA bombs that we used are an impressive bit of pyrotechnic technology. Filled with sodium nitrate and charcoal, they can really light up. The cartridges themselves are cylindrical and come about the size of a toilet paper roll (with all the paper gone) with fuses that have to be assembled manually. The object is to place the bomb into the ground squirrel’s tunnel as far as you can and then light the fuse. Then you stamp the entrance closed with your boots or with a shovel to keep the smoke in. Since ground squirrel tunnels often have more than one entrance, you have to watch for escaping smoke from other openings.

This is where we were out-smarted by the squirrel. Actually it was a matter of being out-paced. My friends had no sooner lit the fuse then the irate rodent came charging through the tunnel to see what was going on. When it discovered my friends, it turned around and ran the other way - passing over the smoking bomb.

Now, somewhat amused, my friends closed off the entrance only to discover the wily animal emerging from a hole several yards away. The startling thing was that it was on fire. Its thick winter coat had not been completely shed and the poor creature looked like a veritable torch with legs.

Once it was free of the smoke in the tunnel, it ran across the field shedding flames everywhere before running down another hole. My friends were so stunned by the whole thing, and preoccupied with putting out the fire, that they didn’t have time to follow the arsonist. More than likely it’s still in a tunnel somewhere, half bald and planning its revenge.

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