Part 5: As winter approaches, keep an eye out for Hazelnut the squirrel

By Anna Gibbs

This is the last article in a series about rescuing a wild squirrel. The other articles can be found here or by following the links below.

It was hard to guess how Hazelnut would behave in his early days of freedom. Sometimes rehabbed squirrels disappear for weeks after they’re first released, while others don’t want to leave the cage.

We might never see Hazelnut again, or we might see him frequently.

Whatever Hazelnut decided to do, my job as caretaker was not yet over.

Because Hazelnut was born in August and released in October, he didn’t have time to cache nuts or seek out a warm shelter before the cold weather.

He would depend on me for food throughout the entire winter. 

Or rather, he would depend on someone. I was abandoning my parental duties to spend three weeks in Brazil, so my dad was taking over while I was gone.

As I traveled south, I wondered what Hazelnut’s first days of freedom would be like.

I felt bad not being nearby. What if he returned? Would my absence confuse him?

In my research, I learned that some rehabbed squirrels don’t forget the person who raised them.

I hoped for something like a Christian the Lion reunion: a tender embrace, a warm acknowledgment of companionship and shared history.

At the very least, I hoped for recognition. There’s something appealing about being recognized by animals, especially wild ones.

Perhaps it makes us feel closer to nature, like we’re indeed a part of it all.

We have spent many years trying to distance ourselves from our animal brethren. It’s lonely work.

Hazelnut’s canvas bag (photo by Anna Gibbs)

Every few days, my dad updated me on Hazelnut’s escapades. I received a text as I arrived in the Rio airport, the morning after the release: “I checked Hazelnut’s cage and though I didn’t see him, his food was mostly gone, so it looks like he stopped by for a snack!”

And then, a few hours later: “Hazelnut has returned and is running all over the deck and me, and chowing down peanuts. He looks to be in fine fettle.”

Hazelnut was adapting well to the outdoors, but he returned frequently in the first week.

“The last couple of mornings we’ve hung out,” my dad texted. One afternoon Hazelnut ran around inside the shed while my dad cleaned it out.

Another day, he greeted the furnace repairman by climbing up his legs.

When the neighborhood cat stopped by the porch, Hazelnut was savvy enough to disappear for a day before returning.

One rainy night, my dad left the sunroom door open a crack in case Hazelnut wanted access to his old canvas bag.

The next morning, when my dad peered into the bag, Hazelnut darted out and crawled all over him.

My brother and a bag of peanuts had to intervene to help my dad reenter the house sans Hazelnut. 

“You’ll be pleased to hear that Hazelnut is enjoying his newfound freedom while still hanging pretty close to home,” my dad wrote.

Playing on the coat rack (photo by Anna Gibbs)

This was certainly the best of both worlds. He was exploring, but he knew where to go if he needed a safe place to stay. Five thousand miles away in Brazil, I recognized the feeling.

Towards the end of my trip, I realized I hadn’t received any Hazelnut updates recently.

Worried my dad was purposefully withholding a sad update until I got home, I didn’t ask.

Luckily, a few days before my return, Hazelnut showed up again. He was disappearing for longer periods and becoming more independent, just as we hoped.

During my travel home, I pictured my reunion with Hazelnut: he would emerge from the trees and jump on my shoulder.

He’d be thrilled to see me. We’d sit on the porch together. I’d feed him peanuts.

Some part of me expected him to recognize my voice, murmured to him several times a day for eight weeks, since before he opened his eyes, and that he would appear instantly.

When I pulled into the driveway, I left my luggage in the car and ran to the porch, calling Hazelnut’s name and making chirping noises.

I checked the trees, then the canvas bag. He wasn’t there. My dad told me he hadn’t seen him in a few days.

I tried not to take it personally, and then I tried not to worry.

The next week was a game of squirrel tag. I was in and out of the house, housesitting or traveling to visit friends.

As soon as I left, Hazelnut would appear. When I returned a few days later, he was gone again.

He was suspiciously consistent. I began to wonder if we would ever have our Christian-the-Lion reunion.

Finally, one night while I was housesitting, I got a text: “Hazelnut’s sleeping in his canvas bag right now!” I rushed home the first thing next morning. It had been a month since I’d seen my little fellow.

The reunion didn’t go as imagined.

When I entered the sunroom, he was sitting on the coat rack. “Hazelnut baby,” I cooed. He watched me, unmoving. Then, as I approached, he scurried into the canvas bag.

I had never witnessed him entering the bag; I would only find him there mid-nap. Yet now he ran into it.

I reached my hand gently into the bag, and he exploded against it, an annoyed flurry, little claws scratching at my fingers.

I could take a hint. I retreated indoors, stung and surprised.

My dad finally lured him out of the bag with a peanut. Once he was sitting on my dad’s shoulder, I entered the sunroom, and Hazelnut finally ran over to me.

For ten glorious minutes, my little fellow was back. He scurried up my legs, across my arms, leaped from the coat rack to my head and back.

I grinned widely as we picked up our old routine. He had changed drastically in the past month: he was quite the hefty squirrel now.

His chubby belly rested on the coat rack as he ate a peanut. His face had grown more angular; he looked grown up.

I also wasn’t sure he recognized me. Or, perhaps, he did recognize me, and that was the problem. He didn’t just ignore me; he hid from me!

Did he resent my leaving, like my cat does when we vacation? Was he afraid I was there to take away his independence?

Did he equate me with his cage and his limitations? What was going on in his little mind?

After playing with me for a while, he crouched on top of the coat rack in an anxious posture.

I opened the sunroom door, but he didn’t move. We spied the neighborhood cat in the yard next door.

Grateful to see his survival instincts in action, I bid him farewell, and he slipped out a few hours later.

That was the last time we saw Hazelnut. It’s been a month. The peanuts in the sunroom sit untouched.

We can reasonably hope that Hazelnut made himself another home where he is keeping warm.

Red squirrel mortality is high, but I have faith in Hazelnut. He showed intuition time and again in response to predators.

He knows how to find us if he needs a safe place. He seems smart. He’s chubby and prepared for the cold.

As you’re going about your business this winter, keep an eye out for him.

He might pass by you in a tree overhead or hassle the birds at your feeder.

He has a red fluffy tail and gentle eyes. Let me know if you see him. I consider him a friend.

A native of Ipswich, Anna Gibbs is a recent college graduate and science journalist. More articles in the series can be read here.