Holiday Hill  by Edith M. Patch

The Cone Hunt

C HICKAREE'S name rhymed with Chickadee, and while he was quite young he stayed in a nest. But, for all that, Chickaree was not a bird. He was a squirrel.

The nest where Chickaree and his brothers and sisters lived their first spring was near the top of a ragged old pine on one side of Holiday Hill. After the young squirrels could climb and run they had many frolics among the branches of this tree. They played hide-and-seek and tag, and they chattered most gayly. Now and then they returned to their big dry nest of brown leaves and shredded bark to rest. If their mother were at home, they cuddled beside her.

There came a time, however, when these brothers and sisters were old enough to leave the house and lot that belonged to their father and mother and take care of themselves.

Chickaree chose Arbor Vitae Camp for his own new home.


Arbor Vitae Camp

Arbor vitae trees often grow in low swampy places; but hillsides are all right for them, too, especially if their roots can find plenty of moisture. Arbor Vitae Camp is about halfway up Holiday Hill. A little brook runs down that side of the hill, and the tall trees as well as the short plants growing there are different from many of those on drier and more open parts of the hill.

It is a gurgling, burbling sort of brook, making tiny waterfalls as it leaps over bits of broken granite here and there. Chickaree, being a talkative and jumping young creature, quite possibly found some companionship in the music and the motions of the brook.

Of course Chickaree could not pay money for Arbor Vitae Camp and get a deed for it. He could not put up a sign with the words NO TRESPASSING on it. But before he was quite a year old he had some perfectly good squirrel ways of telling the wild world that he owned the place.

He stood on a branch and sang. His early spring tune was a series of pleasing notes that churred and rolled in happy tones. Fond as he was of music, he would sing nothing except his own solos.

If other squirrels tried to stay too near, he never sang any male duets or trios or quartets with them. Indeed, at such times, he stopped singing altogether and began to scold. If the other squirrels did not understand that he meant what he said, he chased them. And if that was not enough of a hint for them to go away from Arbor Vitae Camp, he fought—and his teeth were very sharp.

You may think from these actions that Chickaree had rather ugly manners. But it is well to consider that he had no gate that he could close. He had no lock and key. There was no policeman to walk back and forth and help protect his property. And there were many other places for other squirrels.

There was, however, one squirrel whom he did not chase or scold. She did not disturb his happy spring song. She liked his voice, and he seemed to enjoy singing to her. In fact, he actually invited her to stay and share his home. She accepted the invitation and became Mrs. Chickaree.

Mr. and Mrs. Chickaree were especially handsome in their spring colors, which were brighter than those they had been wearing. They lost their rather dingy, rusty look when winter was over. The ruddy back fur was separated from the white under fur by a neat dark line along each side. Their fluffy red tails had a prettier glow, too, for a while. Their fresh suits were becoming to them.

Mrs. Chickaree could not spend much of her time listening to squirrel songs. She found that a family of five youngsters kept her rather busy. As she was so very fond of them all, there was nothing she would rather do than take care of them. She was quite happy most of the time though she had a worried day when something happened to the nest and she had to move her family one at a time.


Young Chickaree and two of his brothers

Each baby reached up its arms and held its little hands around its mother's neck while she carried it to a safer place. They could use their front paws like hands in so many ways that it seems natural to speak of them by that name.

Daddy Chickaree did not spend much time singing, as summer came on. He guarded his family and premises like a little watch dog, barking at all intruders. He even tried to scare away big creatures like the children from Holiday Farm.

At such times he barked so fast and furiously that he seemed to be coughing and sneezing and growling and squealing all at once. For his voice had low tones and high tones, and the queer thing about it was that he sounded as if he were using all his tones at the same moment.

When he ran out on a branch in a threatening way, his little face had a very cross expression, and his tail jerked and twitched with his fierce excitement.

But all his efforts were wasted on the children, for they were not a bit frightened. They only laughed. His fury, somehow, seemed just funny to them. They told him politely that they liked to come to the shade of Arbor Vitae Camp now and then, but they would not harm him or his family or take away the food from his pantry. And by way of peace offering, they often left a few peanuts where Chickaree could find them.

Chickaree did not understand the words they said to him, but he did seem to comprehend the message of the peanuts. So, as time went on, he did not scold them nearly as terribly as he had done at first.

Food interested Chickaree greatly, of course. What he ate was important to him, as, indeed, it must be to all animals. He found variety enough quite near his home.


Food interested Chickaree greatly

He liked fruit and enjoyed the juicy sweet blueberries on the hillside. He needed some meat, too, and caught grasshoppers and other insects which he found here and there. Eggs and tender young fowl tasted good to him and, if he could find them in birds' nests, he helped himself. He was that kind of hunter.

Of course such a hunting trip was a sad affair for the birds who built the nests and laid the eggs. It is easy to see why Chickaree and his family were most unpopular with the birds of Holiday Hill. That may be the reason why so few of them chose to have their nests near Arbor Vitae Camp.

Seeds of many sorts pleased Chickaree, and perhaps there were none he liked better than those that grow in cones. The first seeds of this kind he had ever eaten came out of pine cones on his father's lot, where he lived when he was younger. He had once found some spruce seeds that he had been glad to eat. But the arbor vitae seeds that grew in his own camp satisfied him, too.


Chickaree was a hunter

Since squirrels do not spend their winters in sleep, as woodchucks and frogs and some other animals do, Chickaree needed to have food stored for winter use. There would be cold days when Holiday Hill would be covered with snow. He must have plenty of food in piles where he could find it easily.

It seems unlikely that Chickaree could have done much real thinking about winter while all his hillside world was green and summery. So perhaps he gathered food for the mere fun of doing it. Certainly, while he was picking his cones, he acted as if there were nothing quite so jolly as a good cone hunt. He seemed never to be too tired, although he worked busily most of the day from sunrise to sunset.

He began to harvest his crop about the first of September. The trees were loaded with cones as that year was one of heavy bearing. To be sure the cones were not ripe yet. They were still almost cream-colored and were tinted with very pale green. Their scales were tightly closed, and the seeds were all safe inside.

These little cones do not grow singly like spruce or fir or pine cones. Arbor vitae leaves lie in flat sprays, and the tips of the branches spread out like open fans. The cones grow in clusters near the ends of the sprays. Often there are fifty or more cones in such a cluster.

Do you think that Chickaree cut those tiny cones one by one? Not at all! He nipped the twig with his teeth so that the whole end fell together. By the time he was through with a branch, all its tips were well trimmed.


A cone cluster cut by Chickaree

His pruning shears were good tools. He could work very fast with them. They never became rusty or in need of sharpening. Snip, snip, snip—and down came a shower of cones! This was a jolly way to harvest a crop.

For several days Chickaree left the cones where they fell. It seemed to be more important for him to cut them than to gather them. If they stayed on the trees too long they would ripen and the seeds would drop out. His motto seemed to be "Hurry, hurry, hurry, lest a seed get lost!"

By the end of the first week in September the cone clusters lay on the ground in thick circles around the trees. Then the busy squirrel began to put his cone food away for winter.

What sort of places do you think Chickaree chose for this harvest? Good dry pantries like hollows in old trees or little caves sheltered by rock roofs? Not at all. He put his cones into cool damp places. He used cold storage for them.

Chickaree dug some small holes in soggy moss where the brook kept the ground wet. He did this with a few quick movements of his strong little hands. Into such a hole he tucked only a few cone clusters or often only one.

Most of the crop, however, he stored in large open cellars that he did not need to dig. He found some wet mossy hollows shaded by the trees and filled them; and he piled many cones between two old logs.

The cousins from Holiday Farm found these cellars, and Uncle David permitted them to measure one. The clusters lay in a heap about fifteen inches long, ten inches wide and four inches deep. There were more than three hundred clusters of cones in this heap. As most of the clusters had fifty or more cones, you can see there would be a great many arbor vitae seeds there even if each cone held only ten good seeds. There were probably somewhat more than 300 x 50 x 10 seeds in that one cellar of Chickaree's!

Another cellar had a larger heap—much larger. It looked more than five times as large. But the children did not touch this one to measure it or to count the seeds. Chickaree came and scolded them severely. He was very much worried about it. He had worked so long to cut all those cones and pack them away in flat piles that it is not strange he was anxious to keep them safe. The cousins thought they might feel as he did if they had harvested the cones.

Chickaree had been busy every day for about three weeks cutting and storing his crop of cones. He had done his work at exactly the right time. By the last week in September the season of unripe arbor vitae cones was over. There were only a few left on the trees in Chickaree's camp, and most of these had opened their scales. At a touch their seeds scattered to the ground.

But Chickaree's seeds not did scatter. The closed cones stored in his damp cellars did not open. Neither did they become sour or moldy. Perhaps there was enough aromatic cedar oil in the cones to keep them well preserved. Even those that were left untouched until the next spring were fresh and good.

The Chickaree family had their winter home in a dry hollow in an old tree. They slept there at night, each with a long tail curled around for a fur cover. During the very coldest, stormiest days they felt dozy and stayed at home then, too.

They were awake and active, however, on pleasant winter days. They were hungry, too. That is why the heaps of cones in Chickaree's cellars became smaller and smaller as time went on.

Little tunnels under the snow led, like subways, into these cellars. And here and there a pile of cone scales showed where a squirrel had brought his cones to nibble and break them for his dinner of seeds.

So the squirrel's cone hunt was not only a pleasant September task. It served, too, to provide food during a long cold winter when there were no berries or insects to be found.

In this connection it is interesting to know that the name "arbor vitae" means "tree of life." Chickaree never learned the meaning of those words. But he seemed, nevertheless, to appreciate the trees and their cones.