Soon after waking up today, when I looked out the back window, I saw three squirrels already bustling around the bird feeder. Squirrels, it seems, eat constantly.
Many people who have bird feeders want to discourage squirrels from taking the seed they put out for birds. They get specially made feeders that have squirrel baffles or find other means of blocking the rodents’ access to the food.
We take a more laissez-faire approach, though that was not our original intention. When we first moved to this house, we tried to position the main feeder (a house-shaped thing we fill with sunflower seed) far from the trunk of maple tree, to prevent squirrels from reaching it. They responded by jumping from the trunk to the feeder, an impressive demonstration of determination that weakened our anti-squirrel resolve. That resolve ebbed further as they amused us with other shenanigans—half the time, the squirrels fed by latching their rear claws onto the edge of the feeder’s roof and hanging down, using their front paws to scoop the seeds from the feeder’s bottom trough. A squirrel eating upside down in this fashion for half an hour at a time produces no small measure of admiration. That became delight squared when we began to see two squirrels, one on either side of the feeder, simultaneously engaged in tandem upside-down feeding.
They also provide entertainment value in their competitions for control of the feeder. The scenario generally plays out this way: One squirrel is busy feeding when another approaches the tree. The reigning king/queen of the hill spots the new rival and then pursues it up and down and around the tree and then across the yard in a high-speed chase marked by sudden changes of direction and no contact. (Think “tag” with the kids on uppers.) As spectators, we benefit doubly because in addition to the Keystone Kops chase, we can enjoy the dramatic irony, for while the chase continues, a third squirrel invariably sneaks up to the tree, hops up the trunk, and claims the feeder. When the original occupant finally runs the first interloper off the grounds and he/she returns to resume the interrupted meal, incredulity at the injustice dawns. (Think of Edgar Kennedy’s expression in Duck Soup, when he realizes that Harpo is standing in his lemonade vat.) Then begins Squirrel Chase, Part Deux.
We also grew to love the graceful, undulating way the squirrels bounce through the yard, the long furry tail echoing the fluid motions of their body. That echo, by extending the motion, makes it more perfectly beautiful, a balance in composition worthy of any masterpiece.
After some years, the feeder became a bit decrepit, and one of the two pieces of wood that formed the peaked roof broke off, leaving the top permanently half-open. The squirrels quickly seized this new opportunity and began jumping into the feeder, standing on top of the seeds as they worked their way down the pile. When they hear a sound, they peek out, like a solitary meerkat.
And so we formed an unspoken pact with the squirrels. We allow them to feed as long as they charm us with their antics and their grace. Besides, the birds seem not to mind. While larger species, like the jays and cardinals, tend to stay away when the squirrels are not feeding, the little guys—titmice, sparrows, house finches, and chickadees—are not bothered by the squirrels in the slightest. They flit to the feeder, grab a seed, and fly off to gobble it, and then return, oblivious to the furry giant sharing their restaurant.
We have even come to accept the squirrels’ unintentional vandalism. Over the years, they have quite literally worn a path to the feeder. Two years ago, there appeared in our lawn an inch-wide channel of bare soil from the flower beds at the rear of our yard to the squirrels’ feeding tree. In winter, when the grass remains low and dormant, it became dramatically noticeable, but even in spring and summer, you can see the outlines of Squirrel Trace. Last year, they made another one from the evergreens beyond the flower bed (probably where they nest) to the edge of the flower bed where the original began—the Northeast Extension. I don’t know about building a better mousetrap, but if you keep filling the sunflower seed feeder, the squirrels will definitely beat a path to your tree.
Squirrels, then, are charming. Deer, on the other hand, suck.
Sure, their upright white tails are cute. Their big, moist eyes are adorable. Their fur looks soft. Little fawns are sweetly awkward. But deer of any size or shape are destroyers.
I’m not talking about how they also eat from the bird feeders. If they’re that hungry, more power to them, though watching a deer’s long tongue licking seeds from the feeder is a bit gross. (Looks too much like Jabba the Hutt lusting on Leia.) The problem is that they eat our plants.
Now, we can accept that in winter, when pickings are slim, they might stroll into our yard and take a bite or two. We can even give them grudging respect for munching on tough old yucca leaves. After all, Native Americans of the Southwest used to weave yucca into sandals. If the deer can chew on that stuff, they must be desperate!
But do they have to eat the hostas. In the summer? When whatever the hell it is that they’re supposed to eat is in full leaf? I mean, come on!
And in the spring, when the tulips are ready to bloom, and we’re eagerly anticipating the chance to finally realize the payoff of that chilly fall day when we dug the bulbs into the ground, do the deer really have to chew the damn flowers right off the stalk before they open? How is that fair?
And what’s with eating the roses? Just the other day, two roses in front of the house had dozens of buds. When we looked the next morning, almost all of them had been snipped off by marauding deer.
We’ve tried several solutions. “Plant what they don’t like.” Well, they ate that, too. “Use anti-deer spray.” Alas, rotten-egg-smelling spray does repel deer, but it also repels from the garden the people who had planted the garden so they could enjoy it. “Cover the plants with netting.” Cool! Now the rose bush looks like it’s in jail! Neat effect!
One spring day, several years ago, I came back to the house from morning errands. I could see that yesterday’s tulips had vanished into the ravenous maw of Bambi and the mob during the night. Wait till my wife sees this, I thought.
When I came into the house, my wife was sitting on the couch in the family room, meditating. Noticing, I quietly closed the door and tried to put down my keys and other stuff without making any noise that might break her concentration.
“I decided what new gardening tool I need,” she said, eyes still closed and a serene look on her face.
Hmm, interesting meditation, I thought. “What?” I asked.
“A shotgun for the deer.”