Sunday, March 29, 2009

Outwitting Squirrels

It's that time again...springtime, when all the world's animals emerge from their hidey-holes...often with new replicas of themselves to show off.  So too it is for squirrels.  Now I don't mind squirrels as a general rule, they have as much right to cast a shadow on this planet as I do, but the feeders we put out in our yard are called bird feeders for a reason, and the squirrels just don't seem to be willing to abide by the rules.  Once again, I find myself drawn into the conflict of birdwatcher versus opportunistic rodent, of the modern major general against the ever-present scourge of the neighborhood.

I grew up observing a master strategist at grandfather, David Palmer, spent a great deal of his retirement in central Tennessee devising new technological challenges for his low-slung, grey uniformed enemies.  We would visit once every few years, making the 16 hour drive down from the Washington DC area to their home near Crossville, TN, sometimes to partake of the Great Zucchini Harvest, sometimes to crawl through briars seeking wild blackberries, once even waking before the break of dawn to watch a morning glory open the flowers it had closed so meticulously the prior evening.  It seemed that every time we were there, though, the common theme was the wild birds and the latest attempts Grandpa Palmer had made to thwart them as they pilfered sunflower seeds and other precious commodities from his backyard feeder. 

Grandpa Palmer began with a feeder on a pole, a feeble attempt to thwart an animal that climes so well.  He altered the access to the seeds, however any design that prevented the squirrels from gorging themselves--and spilling the seeds to the ground for later, more convenient access--seemed also to prevent the birds from finding a satisfying meal.  Then there were attempts to hang the feeder on wires--first a stable set of three wires, then a less stable pair of wires that seemed sure to be harder for the heavy squirrels to negotiate, then wires stretching twenty to thirty feet to the nearest tree.  When mere wires proved unsuccessful, Grandpa Palmer turned his attention to placing "baffles" on the wires, plastic disks of various radii intended to make a more difficult obstacle course for the Enemy.  Unfortunately the only thing baffling about the baffles was how adept the squirrels were at overcoming them.  And each time, the squirrels would make Grandpa Palmer pay more dearly for his ingenuity:  now it wasn't only the seed that would be thrown to the ground, but the baffle, the feeder, and if they could manage it, the wires themselves.  Sadly, Grandpa Palmer never found the Ultimate Feeding Solution.

Grandpa Palmer is hardly alone in having tried, perhaps to the point of obsessively, to thwart the Great Grey Squirrel.  Nor am I the first to recount the frustration and hand-wringing effects of this Great Work.  One can find far more stories, and failed suggestions for thwarting these subtle rodents, in Bill Adler Jr.'s book "Outwitting Squirrels", which I found a few years ago in a great little store, "Science, Art, and More", which a few months ago succumbed to the current economic depression.  Our copy is a second edition, "Revised and even Craftier", although it still provides no sinecure against the Enemy.

My wife Emily and I have come to an "equilibrium point" with the squirrels in our yard.  In brief, we accept that squirrels will exact a tribute from us for putting out our bird seed, suet, and nest-building supplies, each of which hang from a branch of our apple tree.  We do not, however, cede our hard-won earnings, or the seed and suet which we buy with it, without a fight.  When we see the squirrels at the feeder out the window, we cry "bad squirrel!" and the race for the high-pressure water rifles ("SuperSoaker" brand) is on.  These rifles don't injure the squirrels--well perhaps they increase the chance of sickness during the winter, assuming our water jets actually reach their target--but they act as a stiff deterrent.  Squirrels do not like to get wet, apparently.  And whether it counts as any sort of solution to the Fight to End all Fights against our perennial Enemy, our strategy at least has the benefit that we feel we are fighting back, for Grandpa Palmer and every other backyard birdwatcher who has ever tangled with the Great Grey Squirrel.

1 comment:

  1. I, too, have had squirrel wars at my house. But it's all pretty good natured feuding with my nemesis...