Friday, February 17, 2012

Bird Seed and Squirrels


Sparrows, cardinals, a woodpecker, a pair of gray doves, an occasional catbird, sometimes a blue jay, and Carolina chickadees. And squirrels.

From my home office I look to our small inner-suburban backyard and two bird feeders. We get a good flow of birds in the early morning. It’s interesting to watch. The doves eat from the ground the fallen seed from the feeders. The woodpecker perches upside down about 15 feet up a nearby oak then flies in, snatches a seed, then flies back. It does this a couple dozen times then moves on. The sparrows and chickadees come in groups of 4 to 8 and flutter around the feeder for a few minutes then move on.

Then the squirrels.

One feeder sits on top of a metal pole about 7 feet off the ground. It is a square hopper style feeder with a perch on a spring. Anything too heavy on the perch will close the mechanism and cut off access to the seed. On the pole, about two-thirds up, is mounted a black metal tube, open at the bottom, through which the pole goes. This device is called the “squirrel baffle.” Any critter that tries to climb the poll will enter the tube and not be able to climb any higher.

The other feeder hangs from a “Shepard’s Hook” style metal pole. It hangs about 4 feet above the ground. That feeder is a rectangular feeder with several openings at different levels. It is enclosed in a green metal cage and only animals that are small with beaks can get at the openings.

These feeders are 100% guaranteed squirrel proof!

After the birds have mostly moved on, the squirrels move in. They start on the ground and nibble up the seed that fell to the ground that the doves left. That’s easy. But then one hops onto the Shepard’s hook, climbs out to the end, hangs upside down and pulls seed out with its little claws. Some it eats straight away, but most lands on the ground where its accomplice eagerly waits.

Last summer I unwittingly moved an outdoor citronella torch on a pole to within about 3 feet of the other feeder - the hopper style one. The black metal pole has a small holder at the top which contains a black metal canister of fuel. The squirrels shimmy up the torch pole and fling themselves from the top of the torch to the top of the baffle then easily climb the last couple feet to the hopper. Since they can’t stand on the spring-loaded perch, they climb all the way to the top of the hopper, hang upside-down, and pull seed out with their claws.

At first I was angry at the goddamned squirrels eating up my goddamn birdseed. Goddamn squirrels!  But now I’m amused in a strange way. They are definitely working for it. I could move the torch pole, but it’s almost fun watching them make that leap. It appears to be just at the limit of their range but mostly they make it. Sometimes one misses and has to try again, which it does with no hesitation.

It’s funny how our culture rewards the individual who rises from nothing to greatness. The underdog.  The “little guy.” Yet when it comes to birds and squirrels, we’ve stacked the deck. We create feeders that are easy for the birds. Exclusive in fact. The squirrels are given no chance but that does not deter them. They don’t seem to care at all.

When we use “squirrel” to describe someone, it’s not usually a compliment.
“He’s acting kind of squirrely.”

You don’t really want to be referred to in this way.

We may say someone “squirreled” away something, remarking on that person’s thriftiness or how he or she saved things. But we wouldn’t use that to describe a thoughtful or noble effort.

“Yeah, grandpa squirreled away all these cans of pinto beans he found on sale at the Piggly Wiggly.”

But no one uses “squirrel” to describe the behavior I most see from squirrels: Their dogged determination, perseverance, and cleverness. You never hear a parent from the sideline of a soccer game mention that the undersized kid who never gives up has “a lot of squirrel” in him. At best you’d get sideways glances if you try that.

Which is too bad because I think our suburban squirrel deserves a little more respect. I could take additional measures to keep the seed from the squirrels, but they’d eventually “out-squirrel” me. So I’ll continue to feed the birds, and the squirrels. And for now, I think I’ll leave that torch pole where it is providing them a launch pad for the hopper feeder. At a minimum its fun to watch them attempt that leap.

Especially when they miss.

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