This morning I called my father in Seattle to talk about the fox squirrels I found tearing the meat off the one peach our sapling managed to grow. I got so mad, I told him, that I took my shoe off and threw it. The squirrels exploded off the tree’s fragile branches, snapping off limbs in the process. My father grunted. “I didn’t think they ate peaches,” he said.
“They don’t,” I replied. “They just eat the pits.”
These same fox squirrels — I did not tell my father — almost caused a small accident an hour later, when my husband swerved so hard to avoid two of them tumbling down our drive that he barely missed another car parked by our house. My father would not like to hear about this accident, no matter how minor. At 83, he worries constantly; it’s his cardio. He sits by his kitchen window all day, watching the hummingbirds he feeds, afraid to go outside. He has a heart condition — hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, to be exact — and now he gasps for air after walking a few feet. If he falls, he can’t get up, even with my mother’s help. Last week he fell in the kitchen and stayed on the floor for eight hours, begging my mother not to call 911 because he didn’t want to pay for an ambulance. I call every day now from my home in Salt Lake City to check in, but mostly to beg him and my mom to move into a retirement community.
“But what about my hummingbirds?” he asks.
For my father, watching nature from a window is his only connection to the outside world, and now my observations about nature here in Utah feel like my only connection to him. My father and I, in our separate cities, have turned into amateur naturalists. During the pandemic, when I was stuck at home, my exercise had been going to my local dog park with my biologist neighbor who taught me to wonder at our city’s burgeoning population of raptors. I live in a hilly university district whose elm-lined streets and yards packed with fruit trees are a haven for urban wildlife. Cut off from my normal distractions, I began to gather at dusk in the park with birdwatchers to watch fledgling Cooper’s hawks learn to hunt. The dog park itself abuts a wooded cemetery, and so I also learned from a group of amateur photographers that a family of five great horned owls had taken up residence in the cemetery’s pines. I began tracking those, too, and mourned with the rest of my neighborhood when one, at first, then all five of the owls perished from avian influenza.
For my father, watching nature from a window is his only connection to the outside world, and now my observations about nature feel like my only connection to him.
But the real story behind our neighborhood’s raptor explosion, I learned from my biologist friend, was a sudden, if not quite visible ground war between different species of squirrel, both of which are raptor food sources. Every day, it seems, a pitched battle is waged here between invasive eastern fox squirrels — as bushy and autumn-colored as their canid namesakes — and Utah’s native American red squirrels. The fox squirrels were first spotted here 12 years ago along the Jordan River, either deliberately introduced there or arriving by accident, and they have reproduced at an exponential rate. Unlike our pine-loving red squirrels, which thrive on cones and seeds, the eastern fox squirrels eat everything: tubers, insects, bulbs, pine nuts, bird’s eggs. They are insatiable and rapacious. They chew through wires and house siding and wood fences. They are also extremely dumb. They seem determined to kill themselves in elaborate ways involving street scooters and house pets, running alongside bicycles like frat boys among the bulls in Pamplona. Once, the biologist and I actually watched one fall off a tree branch right into the waiting, open mouth of a pit bull at the dog park. The dog still hasn’t gotten over it.
My father barked with laughter when I called to tell him that story. “Do you remember,” he asked me, “those squirrels I used to trap to keep them from eating our house?” My parents’ home in Seattle is a 100-year-old reconverted barn whose shaggy cedarwood exterior must taste like gingerbread to rodents. My father would set out metal traps each week, driving his catch off to a park to release them until the squirrels finally became too plentiful and persistent. Then he began filling up our garbage can with water and dropping the cages — animals and all — into the water. I remember catching him once when I was eight, how I sat by the garbage can and screamed and screamed that I wouldn’t leave it till he pulled out the traps. “You stop that right now and go inside!” my father yelled.
“Make me!” I screamed back. And he picked me up by the back of my shirt and hauled me into the house.
My father is a different man now. He loves all animals, no matter how small. Age and illness have gentled him — or weakened him, depending on how you look at it. My father has lived his whole life in Seattle, more than half of it in the same house, whose gutters are now torn and hanging off, whose roof tiles and porch are slick with mosses, each room so stuffed with books and knickknacks and furniture that he and my mother once discovered a cat they didn’t own living in their pantry, eating butter. He loves this house: he’d do anything to keep it. I, on the other hand, don’t love the house at all. It’s an anvil, a mortgaged death sentence. “This place is too much for you,” I tell him each time I call. “Please, please move out.” But he can’t. The only people who talk to my father more than me now are Seattle real estate developers, whom he’s also fighting off. He wants to stay and I want him to be safe, and these two desires are mutually exclusive. One wish will eventually cancel out the other. And when I call to beg them to move — or nag, depending on how you look at it — I know it makes him miserable. I can’t help but see myself as he must: a nuisance, stubbornly nattering on about safety and helplessness, invading his peace of mind.
Maybe this is why I can’t help hating these fox squirrels. I see something of my own insistence in them; their manic, pushy energy makes me thrum with self-disgust. I burn at the chaos they sow in my garden, the way they seem to have taken over everything. We can’t get rid of them, though they’ve gnawed a hole in our fence. They keep spiraling around the yard, freaking out our dog. I find myself rooting for the older red squirrels, with their defensive eyes and scrappy attitudes. I watch for them now the way I once watched for raptors. I recognize them by their white-ringed eyes and creamy undersides, by the fact they don’t budge when first confronted. Make me, their hunched backs seem to sneer.
My father is a different man now. He loves all animals, no matter how small. Age and illness have gentled him — or weakened him, depending on how you look at it.
The fox squirrels haven’t entirely driven them off yet, but they are competing for territory up and down the city, and the red squirrel population is shrinking here. They’re doomed and only we know it. They’ll coexist a few more years here but the red squirrels will eventually be overwhelmed. You get rid of one fox squirrel and two more take their place. If nature abhors a vacuum, fox squirrels annihilate it; they drop two litters a year, four kits at a time. No one will ever know who introduced the first fox squirrels to Salt Lake but it doesn’t matter. This is their home now. Eventually, we’ll forget they never even belonged to this place.
“What makes a pest,” I wonder tonight on my drive home, as a woman with California plates and a new ski rack cuts me off, blithely waving a middle finger in her rear view when I honk. Anything that isn’t native, I guess. I was born and raised in Seattle; now I’ve lived for 20 years in Salt Lake, my presence here having driven other people out of their jobs and neighborhoods. I’m trying to push my father into a home at the same time I’m building a cabin near Capitol Reef, and tech migrants to Utah have raised my property taxes to something close to unlivable. What, finally, is native when one population erases another, and communities continually change and get replaced? What does a home mean when — whether out of fear or need or just out of a desire to find something new — you eventually have to leave it?
At home, I sit by my kitchen window, checking voicemail. I hear a sudden chirr from the garden, the thrashing of a fox squirrel, and then I see a hummingbird rise up. The bird flits toward the glass, hovering so precisely at head-height that it looks, for a moment, as if it’s paused to observe me. I jut my head to take a better look. There’s the green back and iridescent, jeweled throat my father taught me to look for. It hovers and sways, refusing to move. I look and look, but when I reach for my phone to take a picture for him, it startles, rears back and vanishes.
This story appears in the May issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.