The Squirrel Chatterer

The founder of the IU Squirrel Club returns for a visit with friends in Dunn Woods

As the late day inched toward dusk, Emily Jones had reason to feel that it had been a very good afternoon.

The Indiana University graduate and former IU employee hadn’t been back to Bloomington for more than two years and didn’t know what to expect.

Emily Jones, the Squirrel Chatterer
Emily Jones, the Squirrel Chatterer
(Photo: Mike Leonard)

Buddy Joe showed up first. Then, in no particular order, so did George, Tyson, Cody, and, finally, Hazel. Dear little Hazel.

“This is crazy,” Jones said at one point. “They’re all the originals.”

The originals are the squirrels she befriended when she launched “The Squirrels of IU” on social media sites and the Squirrel Club at Indiana University — an association of students who embraced the idea of learning more about the rambunctious and omnipresent critters that roam and romp across the 2,000 acre woodland campus.

Al fresco with the gang (Video: Mike Leonard)

It was Halloween night, and Jones was packing an abundance of squirrel treats: peanuts in the shell, cashews, walnuts, almonds and other nuts. As her old friends approached, Jones dug into her bag and fed each squirrel by hand, off and on, for nearly two hours.

Hazel was the last to arrive, and Jones was eager to show off the “trick” she’d taught her years before. She’d first tested Hazel’s memory a couple days before, when she first arrived for her Bloomington visit, and was pleasantly surprised that Hazel remembered not only her but the little stunt they shared.

“Can you spin?” Jones asked, looking into the squirrel’s eyes and holding out a nut at the tip of her fingers, moving her arm up and down, as if to say “See it. Here it is!” Jones moved her hand in a circle. Hazel focused on the nut and twirled in a circle.

Squirrel ballet (Video: Mike Leonard)

“One more!” Jones encouraged with another circle gesture. Hazel spun a second time, and then accepted the nut ever so reverently, as if it was a communion wafer.

Jones came to IU to study violin at the Jacobs School of Music. She ultimately majored in journalism and music, and currently works as a reporter for the Idaho Mountain Express. But her music education at Jacobs created the underpinning for her layman-turned-expert relationship with squirrels.

First, she was enchanted by an encounter as an IU freshman while eating lunch outdoors between classes. A squirrel approached, Jones talked to it – her tone and gentle mannerisms more meaningful than what she had to say – and the squirrel gradually got a lot closer than the Winnetka, Ill. native ever experienced with a wild animal.

Her interest piqued, she began to listen squirrel chatter, and with her “oral skills” class in music fresh in her mind, she recognized the pattern of squirrel calls and identified a 1-2-3-4 count followed by 1-2-3. “It seems that it translates to ‘I have food’,” she said with a laugh.

Jones clicked out the call with her tongue flicking the roof of her mouth when she arrived at her favorite haunt in Dunn Woods, the preserved forested area in the Old Crescent heart of campus. She passed under the five trees Hazel typically occupied repeated her squirrel call.

“That’s Tyson’s tree there,” she said as she moved through the territory, pointing to a tree neither of us could identify.

As the old gang wandered in, like guests at a party, Jones explained how she identified each, from their head shape to facial markings to nose prints – “they’re like birthmarks,” she explained.

Later, she would point out another identifying characteristic, that many squirrels reliably steady themselves with a particular paw when they move to grab a nut from her fingers with their teeth. “Oh, they are definitely right or left pawed. Very reliable.”

Jones’ reunion with Hazel was the most emotional for both, it was clear. One of the few females in the area, Hazel was pregnant, again, and after some feeding and face-time, Jones could take the outside of her fingers and gently brush Hazel’s tummy and feel the babies moving inside. Hazel’s eyes fluttered
rapidly in an exuberant display of blissful satisfaction.

Jones took in the moment, beamed at the sight, noticed the twilight and noted the time. Time to go.

She emptied her nut stash, tossing handfuls of nuts in spots where the individual squirrels shared overlapping territories. “Bury these,” she called out. “You’ll need ‘em this winter.”

Jones was flying back to Idaho, “back to the grind, of being a newspaper reporter in the morning. She didn’t look back.

She noted earlier that some in the old gang were showing their age, their muzzles graying. She didn’t know when she’d be returning to B-Town, or who would or wouldn’t be around when she does. 🐝