Though perhaps not suffering the same magnitude of difficulties once faced by the townspeople in Salem, Mass., the good folk of Salem, Oreg. have had a squirrelly problem of late. The squirrels in question are not indigenous to the parks surrounding the state capitol building where they live or even to the state of Oregon. They are, heaven for fend, furriners—and Easterners at that. In a nutshell, these squirrels are descendants of some five dozen Eastern grays imported from Pennsylvania in the early 1920s by Oregon Gov. Ben W. Olcott, who blasphemously considered the Eastern variety superior to the local type.

For every Salemite who reveled in hand-feeding the furry handfuls, there was another who reviled them as wingless pigeons, eternally annoying passersby with their ungrateful begging. Recently, however, as disaster threatened the squirrels, all hands came to the rescue.

It seems the pampering these transplanted tree-sealers received from those who love them dulled their natural prewinter survival instincts. "I'm afraid these squirrels don't know the meaning of the word 'forage,' " says Nancy Farrar, assistant administrator of Oregon's real estate maintenance department. "They seem to have no idea that most squirrels consider the acorn a prime source of nutrition."

The squirrels had been spoiled by proffered English walnuts, Oregon filberts and other delectable nibbleables that no doubt ruin one's palate for the common acorn. Since the cosseted grays don't gather or store nuts, or even hibernate for that matter, a freak snowstorm in late November threatened to decimate the squirrel population. At the time, their cupboard was almost bare. An emergency plea went out for some 600 to 800 pounds of mixed nuts, and the softhearted people of Oregon responded with enthusiasm. Pledges quickly came in for seven times the poundage necessary, including two tons of surplus nuts offered by growers in nearby Lebanon.

The problem now is where to put the mixed bags of charity that folks so happily shelled out. Lebanon has been requested to put its nuts on hold, as the fate of the sleek squirrels of Salem is secure for the rest of this winter at least. All of which proves that when there's a fat squirrel in need of a handout, Westerners never just say, "Nuts to you.