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Squirrels in retreat

Squirrel attempting to access Ralph's bird feeder.
Ralph Gardner Jr.
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Frustrated squirrel contemplates admitting defeat

It’s too early in the season to declare victory. Doing so is undoubtedly going to jinx my success thus far. If past experience is any indication of future performance I’m setting myself up for serious disappointment and even a disastrous fall. But I’ve got to say it: I think I’ve finally licked our cold-blooded, ravenous squirrels at their own game.

For years now, ever since I started hanging bird feeders in the 1970’s, squirrels have been the bane of my bird-feeding existence. Every year I seem to have more squirrels consuming ever greater quantities of birdseed. Perhaps that’s because I can’t help myself and I keep hanging additional feeders; there’s currently eleven of them decorating the trees around the house.

I could have afforded to look the other way when a forty-pound bag of black oil sunflower seed cost around fifteen bucks. But with inflation, the price has skyrocketed to over thirty dollars, though preordering it from Agway I managed to reduce the bill a few bucks.

If your eyes are starting to glaze over I apologize. But I suspect dedicated birders, as well as the squirrels, are hanging on my every word. There’s probably no scientific method to address how much of that food is consumed by these rodents short of performing autopsies, which I’m sometimes tempted to do. But a rough estimate is that anywhere from a quarter to a third of it goes into their bellies, instead of those of our chickadees, nuthatches, juncos and cardinals; to name but a few species that frequent our feeders.

Considering that I, or rather they and the birds they bully out of the way, tear through approximately ten forty-pound bags between October and May, that’s real money.

I’ve written on this subject before, perhaps too often, and readers have volunteered all sorts of homemade solutions to put squirrels in their place, many of them surprisingly sadistic. But squirrels are problem-solving creatures. If we shared a common language and they were slightly taller and less arrogant they’d probably make excellent architects, NASA engineers, or nuclear physicists.

If you don’t believe me, and there’s no reason to doubt me, I’d direct your attention to a highly watchable YouTube video – it’s garnered over 22 million views – called Backyard Squirrel Maze 1.0. Mark Rober, an ingenious former NASA engineer, in fact, created a Ninja obstacle course meant to confound his resident squirrel population. It took the rodents a while but, no surprise, they eventually defeated it.

That’s why I might be declaring victory prematurely. But in my euphoria I can’t help myself. It’s probably only a matter of time before they thwart the obstacles I’ve put between them and the feeders, especially because the devices are so simple and commonplace. So simple that it’s an indictment of my intelligence, undoubtedly several I.Q. points lower than the average squirrel’s, that I didn’t do it years ago.

So what’s my solution? It’s a combination of poles or hanging wires that put the bird feeders out of reach – or at least make them harder to access – combined with baffles, those metal cones and plastic domes that add to the challenge. Thus far this autumn the squirrels and their chipmunk partners-in-crime have been shut down, thwarted, thoroughly humiliated. And it’s not for want of trying.

I could spend all day watching as a squirrel gingerly inches its way along the three-foot metal arm that extends the feeder outside our kitchen window from the nearest tree, only to find a clear plastic dome adding to his headaches. That hasn’t stopped him either. But in an attempt to circumvent the dome and drop onto the feeder he can’t get purchase and plummets to the ground.

My concern is that when I replace that feeder with a more attractive one that’s been in hibernation until our bear or bears – a whole other story – call it quits for the season the larger lip on the better feeder will provide the villain just enough room to nail the landing.

To show you their tenacity and acrobatic prowess, they’ve occasionally managed to reach a limited edition J. Schatz purple egg bird feeder, also protected by a dome, that I’ve strung from a thin metal line between two trees. It’s actually an even more limited edition, you might describe it more as an artistic assemblage, because I glued it back together, at least the shards I managed to locate in the underbrush, after a bear attack a few years ago.

I can’t address the squirrel scourge without giving a shout-out to our dog Wallie. Our squirrels’ calculus must always include the possibility that at any moment our hunting dog, who runs as fast as they do, will emerge from the house and turn them into a squeaky toy, which she’s done in the past.

Wallie and my bonding ritual includes me sliding back the sunroom door first thing in the morning, loosening her on the herd, and then awarding her with a peanut butter flavored dog biscuit after she teaches them who’s boss.

But I don’t want anyone to think I’m cruel to animals. There are few sights I find cozier and more life-affirming than watching the squirrels humbly milling around the bottom of the feeders waiting for birds to drop them scraps. Even the most prejudiced among us must confess the bushy-tailed beasts are objectively pretty cute.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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