At the crack of dawn I strolled to the balcony of my friend’s pad in the Hasimara Air Force Station (in the Dooars of northern Bengal), alerted by a great swinging and rustling in the branches of a gigantic bay tree. In the blue filmy light of daybreak, I only detected the shape of a squirrel, watching me watching it. I scuttled indoors for my binoculars and camera. When I returned, it was gone. I waited, and my patience paid off. Soon enough, the squirrel reappeared on the bough, pretending not to notice me as squirrels often do. Yet, all the while, even as its busy little maw worked away indefatigably at whatever it was noshing, the squirrel kept its eye on me. I drew a breath, relaxed a little, and peered at it with my field glasses. It was about one and a half times as large as the palm squirrels we have down south, but it differed in having a beautiful golden fawn coat, completely unmarked by stripes or spots. Among individuals, there appeared to be some variation — often in size and in the colour of the coats. The squirrels chased each other up and down the trees all day long, chattering loudly in a voice that did not flatter their appearance.
This, I came to learn, was the Hoary-bellied Squirrel (Callosciurus pygerythrus). It also answers to the name of Irrawaddy Squirrel, which gives us an idea of its range — northeastern India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, China’s southern Yunnan region, and western and central Myanmar. The Hoary-bellied belongs to a family of squirrels known as the Beautiful Squirrels for their extremely alluring appearance. Despite the plainness of its coat, this species is quite handsome. It was observed in mid-canopies in gardens and plantations, as well as in forest in the wildlife reserves of Chilapata, Jaldapara and Buxa in the Dooars of northern Bengal. That said, its range is threatened by habitat loss due to tree felling and disturbance of forest areas. Unlike many other species, it reproduces only once a year with about three to four young in a litter.
A strange thing happened with the squirrels of Hasimara. For the first few days of my sojourn there in early April this year, they appeared to be abundant and everywhere. They rustled about in the treetops, chased each other along the hedgerows, and engaged in noisy bickering. One morning there was a heavy downpour. And that was the last I saw of the squirrels. They were not heard from again for the rest of my days there. What might have happened, I have no idea.
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