In my first cute and cuddly post, I promised that the creatures in part two would be bigger. And cooler. They will, but let’s start small, by revealing your hideous prejudices.
This is a rat. Look at the dirty little bastard. Isn’t he repulsive, skulking around in sewers and garbage all day, tracking his disease and pestilence into our homes. Yeugh!
This is a rat with a fluffy tail. All together now; “Aaaaaw! Noogie!”
It’s not really a rat, it’s a Dormouse. Their tail looks like that because, like squirrels, they live up in the trees, and a fluffy tail helps with balance. Apart from that, they are ordinary rodents. Just like rats. Except for the “Aaaaaw! Noogie!” factor. Unlike most of the small rodents, we see these fairly often. You will be sitting around in the quiet of the night when you’ll hear a furtive scratching in the thatch of the roof or the back of a cupboard. Grabbing a torch, you will open it up, and this is what you will be greeted with.
You may be the hardest, most manly man in the world, and feeling a little tetchy after spending the day driving nails into concrete with your bare hands, but the moment you see this, you will place your hands over your heart, tilt your head to one side, and the words will squeak out of you unbidden; “Aaaaaw! Noogie!”
They are, for wild animals, remarkably gentle. You can pick them up without getting bitten, and they will sit quietly in the palm of your hand, staring up at you with those huge, deep eyes, while you take them back out into the bush and set them free.
They won’t just dash off, either. They will slowly edge off into the night, pausing once or twice near the edge of the darkness to turn and look back, whiskers twitching and tail flicking, before disappearing into the blackness, leaving you crouched, alone beneath the stars, gently shaking your head and whispering “Aaaaaw! Noogie!” Then you dash back inside before something nasty gets you. Like a rat.
It may seem a little odd to those from Northern climes to hear that we call our squirrels tree squirrels. It all makes perfect sense. Over most of the country, the squirrels live in holes in the ground, miles from the nearest tree. They still have big, bushy tails, but instead of using them as an aid to balance while leaping through the air, they use them as parasols on hot days and blankets on freezing nights.
Down in the Lowveld, though, the squirrels are sensible enough to live in trees. They are everywhere. Most of the little animals I’ve talked about so far are so rarely seen they may as well be invisible. Not the squirrels. If you sit down quietly almost anywhere in the bush, they will soon emerge. And they are very, very busy. They live in small family groups, and spend the bulk of their lives chasing each other or shouting at each other.
Some of the shouting is territorial, and it can be excruciating. One of them will sit out in an open spot, flick his tail and go “Chuck!” Then he will do it again. And again. And again. Some days it can be quite annoying. But then there are those other days. New Year’s Day, for example. You wake up with the sun already high in the sky, the temperature pushing 40° C, to find that your saliva has been replaced with the contents of a vacuum cleaner. Your head hurts, and your eyes won’t work properly. And then, as you stumble out of bed, driven by the need for water, you hear it; “Chuck!”
The first time you barely hear it. You stumble on, trying to remember where you left your pants, when you hear it again; “Chuck!” You might just register it as you desperately gulp down a liter of warm water. Again; “Chuck!” You might just find it a little annoying. Two hours later, you will be curled up in a fetal position in the bottom of a cupboard with a damp towel wrapped around your head whimpering “Stop! Stop! You can have my soul if you please just make it stop!” while outside the squirrel cheerfully flicks his tail and shouts “Chuck! Chuck! Chuck! Chuck! Chuck! Chuck! Chuck! Chuck!”
The other sound a squirrel makes is far more piercing, but you do want to hear it. It is a high, nickering whinny, and it is their alarm call. It’s worth checking out. You may not spot anything, but you do know that something is there; a bird of prey, a snake, even a leopard. It’s like having a built in predator alarm.
Looking at them, you would think that squirrels would qualify for the “Aaaaw! Noogie!” brigade, except for one small thing. They have balls of steel. I apologise if that sounds crude, but there is simply no other way to say it. The South African Tree Squirrel is a small, noisy, titanium balled badass! You see, once a family of squirrels have spotted a predator, instead of running away, they taunt it. They form a loose circle around it and take turns dashing in at it. As soon as the predator turns on one, it jumps back, while the others seize the opportunity to rush in.
It’s quite impressive to see them do this to a bird of prey that has landed in their tree, but hopping around in trees is not an eagle’s strong point, so the squirrels are actually fairly safe. Not so when they do it to Mambas. That’s just stupid. But not as stupid as the ones I saw doing it to a leopard.
When I was younger, we found a tiny baby squirrel crawling across the floor of the house. His parents must have taunted the wrong leopard. We took him home and fed him with a syringe. I wish I could say he grew up to become a charming and loyal companion, but he didn’t. He grew up to become Genghis Khan.
My sister and I took him down to the house we shared at university, and he ruled the place with an iron claw. You were fine if you let him greet you. Unfortunately the greeting ceremony was a little disconcerting. He would rush up the front of your body, fasten his claws onto your cheeks, and shove his head into your mouth. Woe betide you if you didn’t open your mouth. First time visitors needed a half hour counseling session and a horse tranquiliser.
We were used to it though. As we stepped into the house, we would stop for a second while he climbed us like warm blooded trees to perform his weird head in mouth trick before going our separate ways. It was no big deal. Unless he decided to greet you as you came out of the shower. Some things you just can’t get used to. I can tell you with some authority that having a short tempered, sharp clawed, fluffy tailed Mongol Emperor claw his way over your genitals is one of those things.
I feel bad. I kind of glossed over the rats and mice in part 1. Then I realized that some of my readers were quite keen on rats. So I’m going to throw one in here.
It’s called a cane rat. It’s quite big. They can get up to 10 kg. That’s twice as big as most cats. Here’s a picture of one that gives a better idea of their size.
They used to be confined to thick stands of dank Elephant Grass. Then we started farming sugar cane. Now there are millions of them. Which is not as bad as it sounds. Because they are delicious. Gourmet restaurant delicious. And low in cholesterol. They are also a cheap and easy source of protein far Africa’s millions of poor. And they are easy to farm. The guy in the picture is not cuddling his pet. He’s playing with his food. Which is very bad manners.
As a measure of quite how tasty they are, you can now buy cane rat meat from black market dealers in the back streets of London. That’s right. Along with all the shifty, sweaty heroin, blood diamond and cocaine smugglers trying to bluff their way through customs, there are shifty, sweaty cane rat meat smugglers with succulent, low cholesterol steaks stuffed down their pants.
These are not cute, fluffy little bunnies. They are long legged, tough, wiry survivors who share their world with eagles, eagle owls, pythons, jackals, caracals, hyenas, cheetahs, leopards, wild dogs and lions. There is a reason for their permanent worried look.
They have one special survival trick that gives them a special little role in our lives. When they are being chased, they will run straight until their pursuers are nearly on top of them before suddenly changing direction. This works wonderfully with predators. Not so much with cars.
As you drive through the bush at night, looking for animals with a spotlight, every now and then a hare will hop into the road. And you sigh. Because you’re about to perform a little dance. Again. The hare is going to run down the road in front of your car. If you speed up, he’s going to speed up. If you slow down, he will slow down. If you stop, he will stop. You can turn off the lights and wait, you can shout, you can bang on the side of the car. He’s waiting to perform his special trick. He’s going to keep running down the road in front of you until you’re almost on top of him. Then he’s going to dash off to the side. So there you have it. The best way to get a hare out of the road is to try and drive over it. Or so they say. I don’t have the heart to try it. So we do our little dance.
If you happen to drive over an open sandy plain in the bush late at night, you may notice some strange, glowing lights in the distance. Most of the animals of the bush have reflective eyes at night, like cats, but these particular ones don’t move right. They seem to float and soar and swoop with a slightly otherworldly grace. They belong to springhares. Up close, springhares are not otherworldly. Up close, they can only elicit one response.
All together now; “Aaaaaw! Noogie!” And that’s about it. I just thought you might need another Noogie moment. They eat plants, live in holes, and jump. Spectacularly. They weigh about a kilogram and can jump over two metres with ease. All I want to know is what sort of twisted freak mated a kangaroo with a squirrel.
Every now and then, walking through a rocky area in the African outdoors, you will come across an ogre’s cave; a dank foetid hole in the rocks surrounded by bones. Sometimes hundreds of bones, all of them old and chewed. No, this is not the den of some voracious predator. It’s a porcupine’s house. Producing all those quills takes a lot of minerals, so when a porcupine finds an old bone lying around in the bush, he will take it home, to chew on at his leisure.
This post is supposed to be about small mammals, but porcupines are not small. They just snuck in here on a technicality, because they are rodents. They are very big rodents indeed- they can weigh up to 30kg. They are black and white, which, in mammals, is a warning colour (skunks have a nasty smell, honey badgers are fairly close to being invulnerable, and even zebras have laser vision). Their quills can be very effective indeed- they can, by setting up an infection, kill predators as formidable as leopards and lions. But they don’t always work. There are lions out in the Kalahari Desert that specialize in eating porcupines. It’s all down to technique.
Despite this, porcupines are very confident indeed. Everything else that size, except the honey badger, sneaks through the dark like a ninja. Not the porcupine. A porcupine used to visit my folks’ place down in the bush at night, and he used to sneak through the dark like a domesticated pig with maracas, wooden shoes and a bad case of sinusitis. He would stomp and rattle and rustle his way through the bush, oblivious to any attention he may attract. Should anything bigger have tried to have a go at him, the noise would really have kicked in. The quills on the porcupine’s tail are hollow, and act like a rattle. A threatened porcupine will erect the quills on his back, stomping his feet and rattling his tail. Should his tormentor persist, the porcupine will dash at him, backwards.
The quills themselves are things of great beauty. Most South African homes will have some of them on display, since porcupines shed them rather easily, and a walk out in the countryside will often turn up one or two.
A few years ago, someone cottoned on to this, and a few interior-decoratey type shops started selling them. The sorts of people who grow alarmed by such things grew alarmed. What if people started killing porcupines for their quills, rather than waiting for them to fall out? Extinction! The truth is that farmers have been trying to wipe out porcupines for years. They are incredibly destructive of crops. They will even kill full-grown trees by ring barking them. So far, the porcupines are winning. South African farmers tend to be better at killing things than rogue interior decorators, so I think the species is gonna be OK.
And now, because I like to pretend that these posts are educational, there is going to be a pop quiz. Don’t worry. It’s going to be multiple choice. Which of the following statements is true?
a) Porcupines can shoot their quills at predators.
b) Porcupine quills are barbed, like harpoons, so that they cannot be removed once lodged in your flesh.
c) Porcupines love recreational sex.
Done? Good. You were wrong, by the way. Here’s the answer.
a) No. They are rodents. Not Pokémon’s.
b) No. This may be true of American tree porcupines, but African porcupine quills are quite smooth.
c) Yes. You are correct. Weirdo. Don’t let me catch you lurking around in my garden.
There’s an old joke that goes “How does a porcupine have sex?” “Carefully” (I said it was an old joke, not a good one). Ironically, it’s completely wrong. There are very few animals that have sex for fun. Bonobos, dolphins, humans, Chihuahuas (as long as there’s a human leg involved) and a handful of others. And porcupines are, against all odds, one of those. They mate for life. To keep the magic alive, they have sex. Every day. And no, I don’t know how they deal with the quills. Why would you even want to know a detail like that? Seriously, stay out of my garden.
So that’ it for the cute and cuddly stuff. It may be a while before you see another wildlife post, because I want to tackle birds next. Little birds. In South Africa, we call them LBJ’s (little brown jobs). We don’t call them that because they are fascinating. But I’ll try. Later. Much later. Until then, I think I’ll go back to calling my wife a crack addict on the internet. I’m trying to get fit again, and all that running should do me a world of good.