Counting Coup

Two favorite pastimes recently coincided, my love for reading historical fiction about the American Indians and watching the squirrels in the backyard.  No, I’m not having a blond moment.  The two subjects do complement each other, at least in my mind, which you can take with a grain of salt.

I learned that the American Indians performed a ritual called “Counting Coup”.  It required an Indian in battle to perform acts of bravery against the enemy.  I remember reading accounts of the “dangerous savages” bravely running up to a soldier, touching him with a stick and the Indian escaping unharmed.  There are other brave acts an Indian could perform to count as a coup (a French work originally meaning a blow or stick) but most importantly it was a higher honor for the Indian to return to his tribe unharmed.

Every day I watch the Eastern Grey Squirrels outwit, outplay and outlast my dogs.  I’ve witnessed the little rodents run up a tree just out of reach of one Border Collie and turn around, still high above the dog.  The squirrel would suddenly leap to the ground, landing behind the dog, then scattering off to run up another tree.  Border Collies are fast and smart but squirrels appear to skim across the ground, their feet like little, well-oiled ball bearings, always barely out of reach of any pursuers.  They perform daring acts of bravery, as they leap from a high slender branch high up in the Live Oak tree over to another slender branch in the Water Oak tree.  They are the Great Wallendas of the wild.

Eastern grey squirrels appear in my back yard in groups, one gathering bedding and another hiding acorns in the lawn, while others build a nest in the tree.  Sometimes a squirrel will sound a chattered alarm, warning the others of danger: human, dogs, a fox or hawk.

It occurred to me while watching the fox in the back yard that maybe squirrels take time out of their busy lives to play games of bravery, to prove themselves and gain status in their packs.  I witnessed four squirrels tag-teaming a fox yesterday.  One would go up a tree, barely out of reach while the others would run around the ground, enticing the fox to chase them.  The fox sat without moving.  Was she frustrated?  Was she waiting for a squirrel to become over-confident so could pounce and kill it?  Suddenly she darted after one squirrel but it slipped through one of the small holes in the chain link fence.  Soon after that the fox left the yard.

I saw two of the four squirrels hop over to the open grassy yard, sit on their haunches companionably next to each other, alert but more relaxed.  Were they recounting their acts of bravery?  I imagined one saying to the other, “That was great.  We’re untouchable.  High-five!”  At night did they sit around the tree nest relaxing with the other males, regaling them with their tales of skill and cunning?   Were they counting coup like the American Indians, putting notches in the bark each time they came close to their enemy, a fox or a dog?  Was there a wise old squirrel, with many notches on the branch next to him, listening silently to the stories, his tail partially ripped off and ragged?  Did he shake his head at the cocky young males?

Wildlife in my back yard gives me entertainment, education and a sense of wonder.  We humans think we are the elite species on the planet.  But I suggest that perhaps we are soft compared to the brave beings that share our world in the yards and forests outside our warm and cushy homes.

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