Sure, most Bollywood fans must have heard that old, yet famous song, "Aye dil hai mushkil jeena yahan, zara hatke jara bachke ye hai bambai meri jaan" — loosely translating to, "It's tough to survive in this city of Mumbai, you ought to beware and be alert!"
And if this applies to humans, it's no small wonder how would meek and helpless creatures such as squirrels survive in this cut-throat city! Indian or Three Striped Palm Squirrels are highly adaptable and vociferous mammals, who grudgingly share their habitat with other animals such as owls, bats, domestic dogs, black kites and crows. But they seem to have a special dislike for cats and snakes, which can climb right into their cotton-filled nests and gulp up the litter of two-three pups.
These rodents are also not as helpless as they are projected by cartoons. You are likely to be welcomed every morning and evening in your colony garden by the "click, click" calls of these squirrels accompanied by tail trashing. Other visitors such as fantail flycatchers or other squirrels are monitored closely from the favourite tree, electric pole or any prominent and safe perch and chased away with vigour.
In India, the Three-Striped Palm Squirrel has gained great significance due to its mythological reference in the Ramayana, wherein the entire Vaanar Sena and other warriors were busy in building the Ram Setu to Lanka by reclaiming the Bay of Bengal with massive boulders. The eager squirrel wished to help, so it rolled in sand and went and dusted its fur in the ocean. Pleased at its effort, Lord Rama is believed to have moved his three fingers on its back and thus arose the stripes of the squirrel.
Numbers of squirrels have risen in the last few decades
Numbers of squirrels have risen in the last few decades due to easy nesting spaces, such as electric meter and air conditioner boxes, tree holes, run down cars and broken pipes, where they can create cozy sleeping or nesting quarters. But if you grow jamun, jackfruit, mango, ber and vilayti badam trees, along with the red silk cotton or kapok trees, then you have created the perfect squirrel nurseries.
The peninsular Indian Palm Squirrel has three buff white stripes running from its head to the base of its tail, as against the five stripes of its North Indian cousin, the Five Striped Palm Squirrel, both of whose distributions overlap in the Mumbai region. Although known to favour fruits, seeds and even human cooked foods, Indian Palm Squirrels have been observed to raid sparrow, myna and parakeet nests for both nesting hollows and also supplementing their diet with eggs and young of these creatures. These brave creatures just like their rodent cousins — rats — climb up slippery pipes and enter through the windows of high rise apartments to steal ripe bananas, chikoos or even to secretly nest in your attic.
It is a great sight to watch a squirrel use its fluffy tail to balance and manoeuvre across a telephone or electric wire, to its targeted destination. This is possible due to their partly opposable digits in its forelimbs and their natural habit of climbing and walking on flimsy climbers and liana roots, in forested habitats. The sharp eyes and highly placed ears both help them keep alert against predators. However, children frequently find squirrel pups fallen on ground, due to the rampant and heartless chopping of trees under the garb of road-widening and beautification.
It is simply hilarious watching two or more squirrels play or defend their territories. Sometimes, while jumping away to a far-off branch to avoid a suitor, they miss a branch and fall to the floor. They generally, easily curve their body and fluff their tail, turning it into a mini-parachute and land safely on their feet. But after that they frantically look around, as if to check if someone isn't laughing at its ridiculous fall! Once convinced about their safety, they run to the nearest protective cover.
Foraging and feeding Indian Palm Squirrels are a photographer's delight, as they sit on their haunches and pick and nibble with their chisel- like incisors, holding the food in their shorter forelimbs. Don't try to go and pick up a fallen squirrel, as even a pup can give you a nasty bite which can even break your finger off your hand!
But if you ever do find an orphaned or injured squirrel pup, first try to put it in a shoe-box and hang the box where the pup or pups were found. If the parents don't come within a day or two, only then take it to your closest veterinary doctor for a basic inspection and disinfection. If possible, hand it over to a registered animal orphanage and only if the doctor advises that the squirrel is capable to go back to the wild, then release it in the same place.
Remember, you are safe where these squirrels truly dare!
Anand Pendharkar is an ecologist, who is the founder of SPROUTS, an outdoors and eco-tourism company and SPROUTS Environment Trust, an NGO which works with youth and underprivileged groups and aims to provide a sustainable environment for all