The proud wearer of stripes accorded to it for its wonderful service, possibly valour too, by someone no less than God himself. It is believed that Lord Rama lovingly petted the creature for its role in building the bridge to Lanka, conferring it with the three stripes on its body. Surely by now you must have guessed we are talking about the Indian palm squirrel, also known as the three-striped palm squirrel, a creature found naturally in India and Sri Lanka.
At home here in Chennai, even as dawn finds us sleepy-eyed, there are others out there who are anything but sleepy. With the birds coming to play in the rain pool, the Indian palm squirrel comes out of its hideout. Soon it starts to climb the nearby mango tree or the acacia tree, sometimes giving out an alarm call as it spies a cat, its number one mortal enemy.
The acacia tree is also home to different climbers such as lianas, which form a green canopy. The squirrel feeds silently on the tender leaves, yellow flowers, seeds and red fruit of the climber on the acacia. It moves in and out of the green canopy in search of berries and is often found upside down holding a twig or a liana with its hind legs to reach the fruit. During the dry season when there is a shortage of food I see these squirrels silently feeding on the tender bark of the tree and also on the fungi and edible mushrooms growing on the bark that are almost invisible to the human eye. Later it struck me that even in this habitat, the squirrels prefer healthy, naturally available food, unlike the crows, mynas and dogs that scavenge on dead and rotten things.
Once I counted 14 of them in a rain pool, split into groups. It has always surprised me how the squirrels here survived without the presence of edible fruit trees as compared to those living in non-urban areas where there is an abundance of natural food. Their food habits intrigued me and seeing how the long branches of the acacia tree had enveloped my window grills, building a nice pathway for them, I began keeping natural grains, nuts and seeds. Soon I discovered that they like beaten rice (Aval in Tamil), coconut, dry coconut, coconut oil, guava, fig (fresh or dried), ripe mango, chapattis, boiled soya bean, boiled maize, millets and bread. While feeding, I noticed the dominant large male squirrel chasing the others off and consuming the most. Given their healthy eating habits, it is strange that they do not eat apples, oranges, tomatoes and carrots.
In the afternoons, they rest in cosy places on the mango tree branches and groom one another. Many times I have seen them extracting fibre from the acacia tree bark and carrying a mouthful to the dense foliage of the mango tree. It was a nest that they were building but despite keeping an eye out for young ones, I failed to locate any.
Then one day, a squeaking sound was heard from one of the rooms in my house. On inspection, I found the squirrel had nested inside one of the empty cardboard boxes in the loft. There were three tiny young ones, helpless, with eyes barely open, resting on a white cotton foam bed and cloth waste, ripped from the nearby unused bed and waste clothing — quite a quantum of work from mother squirrel. And there she was coming back to inspect her little ones. Soon a routine formed, the mother would venture out with her little ones in the morning only to return to the safety of their temporary home by dusk. Nearby, in my neighbourhood, I have often seen some mothers with tiny squirrels in their mouths, in the process of shifting to a new location.
The Indian palm squirrel community seems to flourish here despite life being quite difficult for it. Predators roam around freely, ready to ambush them at any moment — the ever-alert cat, in order to escape from which a squirrel once jumped from a height of about 45 feet from the mango tree into the rain pool below, the scowling shikra, the gliding snakes, the silently fierce mongoose and, last but not least, the skilled local boys with their catapults whose deadly aim could prove fatal for them.