Saturday, 8 August 2015

A Scurry of Squirrels

I have finally defeated the squirrels, those defiant, ingenious, rodent-Houdinis-in-reverse. But it was a Pyrrhic victory.

It began thirty years ago at a little cabin by the Roseau River in Manitoba. Our bird feeder attracted not only nuthatches and chickadees, redwing blackbirds, finches, grosbeaks, cedar waxwings and other avian visitors, but also the squirrels. So I bought a squirrel-proof feeder from Costco. I don't know whether it was ever field-tested, but if so, the focus group must have been fatter or thicker for it didn't take long for one of our squirrels to squeeze through the bars of the cage. I continued to try various designs, positions and locations, but when a bear pulled the feeder down, I gave up.

Here on Mayne Island in a little log cabin half way up a cliff, we began again. Gone were the bears, mosquitoes, wood ticks and poison ivy, but the squirrels were still with us. In the beginning there was only one, and he soon leapt across to the feeder I had suspended from the side of a sloping tree next to the deck. I then tried another "squirrel-proof" feeder of ingenious design with bird perches on a spring tensioned so that birds could feed but the heavier squirrel would draw down the outer frame and close off the feed openings. For a while it worked, and then one day we saw a squirrel draped around the feeder lunching happily, somehow managing not to close access to the sunflower seeds inside.

The trouble with bird feeders is that the word gets around. In the beginning there was only one squirrel, but now we had a score or more running up and down the deck, taunting us. One in particular would not even flee when I charged at him on the feeder, brandishing a stick and uttering a war cry. He would simply retreat to the other side of the tree, clucking mockingly, and reappear when I withdrew. Fearing a repeat of our Manitoba experience, where the squirrels eventually found their way into the roof, I had to devise a new strategy. 

I banished the feeders from the deck and hung a triple-barrelled version high up between two fir trees fifty feet from the cabin. The feeder was suspended on a cord passing through a pulley attached to a wire between the trees. The process of replenishing the feeder was a bit like lowering and raising a mainsail, and we now had to use binoculars to watch the birds, but we seemed to have outwitted the squirrels.

Then one day I looked out to see the feeder swinging wildly on its line. Oh no, I thought. A squirrel must have just jumped off. I waited and watched. At dusk the next day, I noticed a couple of large dove-like birds sitting on a branch overlooking the feeder. They flew across, flapping their wings wildly, trying for a purchase on the perches. Two more arrived at the openings above them, and the four of them clung on awkwardly, embracing the feeder with their wings, hoovering up the sunflower seed within. A white stripe on the back of their heads identified them as band-tailed pigeons. Our feeder was now on their circuit, and they would appear each day for their evening meal.

But I am reluctant to feed these aerial leviathans who empty the feeder in a few days, so for the time being it hangs empty. And no birds swing.

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