Archive for January, 2013

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My War with the Squirrels

January 8, 2013
don't be fooled...

don’t be fooled…

I like most living creatures. I try to live by the Buddhist tenet which urges us to give compassion to all sentient beings in the world. I understand that this includes the likes of mosquitos and slugs and flies, which does make it difficult to follow sometimes.

And it includes squirrels.

Squirrels, you ask? Why on earth would they be a problem? Let me explain.

My war with the squirrels goes back many decades. In fact, it had been my father’s war; that is where I first learned about the enemy. OK, so they are small and furry and occasionally funny. But this innocent facade masks the devious and destructive nature of this insidious critter.

They gnaw. They can chew their way through wood, plastic, and even metal to get what they want. Sometimes this means food. Other times this means shelter. Anyone who has ever had a nesting squirrel in their shed, attic, or basement knows well the havoc they can wreak as well as the additional nuisance of noise, excrement, and unpleasant odor. Once inside a structure, they become a fire hazard for they’ll gnaw on the insulation of wires causing short circuits.

Squirrels have even been known to cause actual power outages. In the course of hiding or looking for food in transformers, they electrocute themselves, causing a short circuit in the process (they are responsible for knocking out the NASDAQ stock market twice). They also cause traffic accidents when innocent law-abiding drivers swerve to avoid hitting the inconsiderate jaywalking rodents.

And worst of all, at least for my father, is that they are perpetual diggers. They scurry around burying food and then later unburying it, leaving divots everywhere in their wake. My father’s pride and joy was his lawn. The son of a gardener, he spent most of his precious little spare time grooming to perfection the manicured patches around our house. These cursed squirrels conspired to ruin his green empire. He dealt with them in a rather ironic manner, first trapping them humanely in Have-a-Heart traps (the kind that don’t injure the animal) and then asphyxiating them in a bag attached to the tailpipe of his idling car. He clearly was not a Buddhist.

My own lawn these days is nothing to brag about, though the squirrel holes are still not welcome. But for me, the bigger problem is the thievery of this lawless breed. I am a bird lover. Because of that fact, I have a bird feeder in my backyard during the winter months to help my feathered friends survive the sometimes harsh conditions. However, a problem arose with the squirrels who also inhabited the yard. They would climb down the metal hanger on which the feeder was hung and chase the birds away, hogging the seeds for themselves. When the defenseless birds tried to eat the fallen seeds on the ground, others amongst the band of squirrels would not allow them even this small repast.

Thus I embarked on a series of preventive measures. The first was a commercial plastic shield situated above the feeder. The squirrels figured this out in about ten minutes, simply climbing down onto it and stretching over the side until they could grab hold of the feeder. I then added another layer above that — an old vinyl garbage can cover — which looked fairly awful but proved effective for a while. The squirrels would approach from above as they had before, but the instability of the garbage can cover would cause them to slide off and plop down onto the grass with nothing but their pride injured. Eventually, though, they learned to overcome this by controlling their slide by splaying out their little arms in order to snag the bird feeder on the way down. I could swear they smiled smugly at me as they gobbled up the seed intended for others.

two lines of defense from above

two lines of defense from above

I adopted a new tactic to counter this latest setback. I added another length of wire between the garbage can cover and the feeder causing their drop to be further and thus faster, precluding their ability to grab onto the feeder. This victory proved short-lived. The squirrels mounted a different attack. I watched them as they climbed down the tree trunk, stopping parallel to and slightly above where the feeder hung about four feet away. After carefully calculating the proper angle, they would then leap through the air and grab onto the base of the feeder. The first few attempts failed causing crashes worthy of those Funniest Video shows, but soon they got the hang of it, and I headed back to the drawing board.

I decided to take some left-over metal hoops and struts from a tomato support cage and form a barrier that would hang between the trunk and the feeder. It looked like some drunken Alexander Calder mobile, but it worked. The squirrels would leap onto this new barrier and swing helplessly within sight of the food but unable to generate any momentum to swing over to it. Until, that is, one particularly acrobatic squirrel figured out how to jump through the small space in the center of the barrier and land on the feeder. The others soon copied this trick.

my Calder mobile barrier

my Calder mobile barrier

I added more wire struts to my barrier to close the small center gap through which they were now leaping. I succeeded in preventing that jump-through route but did not foil them in their pursuit of a free meal. Their final stunt entailed jumping onto one side or the other of the barrier causing it to slowly swivel around. When they had turned to be on the side facing the feeder, they’d do kind of a back flip the final two feet onto their target to resume their dining. I fumed as I observed this latest defeat from my back window. My wife said I should just let them eat for all the work they went through.

We ended up buying a different feeder, one promising to be “squirrel-proof,” which now hangs by the side of our house. I felt pessimistic at first having been burned by the false claims of other products, but lo and behold, the squirrels don’t seem to be able to get to the seed. Or perhaps they are just lulling me into a false sense of security for the time being. But the birds seem to be quite satisfied, and the squirrels have accepted just eating the fallen seeds from the ground, so everyone is now happy. Especially me. Now  that the birds can eat in peace, I can more completely fulfill the live and let live philosophy I’d like to believe in. After all, if the lion can lie down with the lamb, I should be able to coexist with the squirrels. Until they get to my new feeder, that is.

squirrel-free dining at last

squirrel-free dining at last

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The Glory of the Innocent

January 6, 2013
crested terns, Captiva

crested terns, Captiva

Ever since I can remember, the most important people in my life liked birds. When I was a little boy, I recall watching as my grand-daddy put suet in a wire mesh feeder that hung by the holly bush in the back of his house to feed the birds in the winter. A cement bird bath sat along the back border of his garden where a wide variety of feathered friends would splash about during the summer. My father also had these same attractions in our own yard, and I found it to be both educational and entertaining to watch all of our visitors eating and bathing and chirping to the world for what seemed to be no other reason than for the pure joy of it. This turned out to be the beginnings of a lifelong relationship with the avian world.

Birds are for the most part beneficial; I know of no species that do us great harm (besides those in the Hitchcock movie) other than occasionally pooping on the odd car. Their colorful plumage has been exploited for fashion, their eggs and meat have nourished people of all cultures throughout history, their special skills have improved our lives from the vulture’s removal of carrion to the hummingbird’s pollination of flowers. We have kept budgies and parrots for pets, trained cormorants to fish, marveled at the incomparable virtuosity of the mockingbird, made poignant movies with penguins, and even used various raptors as symbols of the greatness of our nations. They populate every continent and have been an inextricable part of humankind’s existence for all of our time on this earth.

prehistoric-looking pelican

brown  pelican

I am not a fully committed extreme birdwatcher such as the ones in the delightful little movie The Big Year who travel hither and yon in search of as many species as possible (the record is 755 in a year). However, I do take great delight in sighting them wherever I happen to be. I have been fortunate enough to travel quite a bit, and in virtually every place I’ve been, there have been memorable birds, some of which I’ve been lucky enough to capture on film from the oddly shaped pelicans of the Atlantic coastline to the graceful egrets and herons of Florida to the feisty sandpipers of the beaches of the Eastern shores and the majestic eagles of Alaska.

white heron, Florida

Great Egret, Florida

At home, too, the birds have provided plentiful pleasure. When we first moved to our house, there was a swampy wooded area behind our backyard which became the home to a pair of mallard ducks. They would paddle about contentedly in search of food until the arrival of winter, and the next spring return again. My wife (who named them Mal and Honey) was quite happy to find out that they mated for life. They were our neighbors for years until, much to our dismay, construction of a new housing development began, and they left in search of a new residence.

mallard male

mallard male

We always put up a bird feeder during the winter months (my father always said they need to fend for themselves the rest of the year). For years it has hung from a tree limb in our backyard. We would spend many an hour watching for who would come, first the smaller ones, juncos and chickadees and nuthatches, then the bright red cardinals with their grayer mates, the blue jays, the mourning doves, and finally, our favorites, the woodpeckers, the colorful red-bellied and the smaller black checked downy.

red-bellied woodpecker sharing with a sparrow

red-bellied woodpecker sharing with a sparrow

In our front yard stands a patch of corn flowers that bloom yellow in the summer and draw myriad bees and butterflies. Each fall, however, when the flowers go to seed, the tiny yellow and black Goldfinches arrive to gorge upon this windfall of protein. They flit to and fro from the surrounding trees to the flowers, high-pitched cheeps accompanying them as they go. Observing them in this autumn feast has become a ritual in our household, and a strange sadness settles over us when the time comes for them to move on before the heart of the winter comes. These little fellows are part of the fabric of our existence in this house.

I’m not sure why I like birds so much. Perhaps part of it is the marvelous diversity of these creatures from the awkward to the beautiful, the tiny to the powerful, the gaudy to the simple — just like people, I suppose. I must admit that there are some I am not so fond of, the bullies of the species such as crows and blue jays. I tend to have a soft spot for the small and the vulnerable, the common brown sparrows and the timid chickadees. I think this too reflects my feelings about their human counterparts. I remember well the first time I read poet Anne Marie Macri’s poem “Glory,” how I was moved by these lines: “And what about the meek and lame? And the glory of the innocent? What about the thumb-sized heart-broken birds? The ones who die in their sleep, their long beaks warm from probing flower’s throats and answering the trumpets. Their emerald bellies heave. One last time they heave, having worked their whole lives to stay aloft.” And isn’t that true of so many of us, working our whole lives to stay aloft, fending off the dangers of the world and suffering the bullies amongst our own kind?

I think most of all I like birds because they make me think of my father. He could be a gruff and taciturn man, but his tender side revealed itself when I watched him tending to the birds, looking out for their welfare, protecting them when they may not have been able to do so themselves. I think of him when I look at his ancient copies of The Book of Birds, Volume 1 and 2, from the National Geographic Society, 1937, now on my book shelf. I look back at some of the pictures within — the one of the owl, talons sunk in the rabbit it caught that upset my sister so, the one of the last surviving Great Auk that looked both befuddled and lonely, the one of the Man-O’-War-Bird’s throat puffing out to court a mate — and I remember my fascination and awe of these creatures. I think of him when I can identify the song of a bird — he knew them all — and recognize one when I see it on our feeder. I know for a fact that he worked his whole life to stay aloft, and I believe he too had a soft spot for the vulnerable feathered creatures that are all around us but so often ignored. If I too can help preserve the glory of the innocent as he did, then I shall maintain this connection between us, and that brings peace to my heart.

sandpiper

sandpiper