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Stories

Attitude

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Backyard bird feeders frequently draw critters other than the birds.  In my backyard, the birds vary from the smallest such as Pine Siskins, Common Redpolls, and Black-capped Chickadees to larger ones like blackbirds, grackles, and magpies.  A few minutes ago I went to the kitchen sink to get a glass of water, and there were three Ruffed Grouse warily making their way through the snow from the tall grass and weeds at the back edge of the yard.  They had about thirty feet to go to the far feeder in front of the spruce trees, and at the rate they were moving it was going to take a while.  They have lots of time, however, and it is always better to take your time and get to the feed than wind up getting nabbed by a predator and becoming feed yourself.   Always better to go hungry today, and live to eat tomorrow.

The two or three hundred pounds of black-oil sunflower seeds that are put in the feeders over the course of a year get scattered around a good bit,  and so a number of four-footed creatures have been drawn to the backyard to compete with the birds.  Rabbits have always been around, but not in large numbers until about five years ago when a population explosion appears to have taken place, and now there are somewhere between a dozen and two dozen Mountain Cottontails living within a fifty yard radius of the house.  Four or five of them are underneath one or another of the two feeders most all day long.

Chipmunks were seen from time to time when we were off in the woods over the years, but they never ventured to the vicinity of the yard until this summer.  They, too, appear to have increased their numbers over the past three or four years, and about the middle of July two Yellow-Pine Chipmunks took up residence with the rabbits in the backyard.  The yard began to take on the look of a Disney cartoon what with Chip and Dale running around in the midst of all the Thumpers and Skippy Bunnies.

Weasels, commonly known as Ermine when they are in their winter pelage, are ubiquitous here.  It is hard to go more than fifty yards in the winter without seeing their distinctive tracks in the snow.  They have gotten onto our back porch a number of times over the years, and three years ago my wife heard a commotion in the bedroom which led to her discovery of an ermine under the chest of drawers.  She shooed it through the kitchen onto the back porch where it disappeared out through one of many small holes that allow access to any number of our small furry friends.  One weasel must have taken notice of all the rabbits a couple of years ago, and took up residence under my shop about thirty yards from the house.  I see him almost every day, and not infrequently around the bird feeders.

Raccoons show up occasionally, and I must say that though they are interesting creatures, they are a pain-in-the-ass to have around.  A couple of them can clean out two bird feeders in short order come nightfall plus some dog food for dessert, and they make a lot of noise doing it.  They bicker a lot, and are never reluctant to say what’s on their their minds.  One night a few summers ago I awoke to a ghastly screeching just outside the house.  I trotted downstairs, grabbed a headlamp, and went out the backdoor to see what the matter was.  Two raccoons were clinging to the top of the power pole engaged in a dispute of one sort or another.  I picked up a couple of stones from the driveway, and lobbed them in their direction.  One of the rocks clunked the power pole close to the raccoons, and they quickly scurried down to the ground to run off together in the direction of the barn.  Whatever disagreement they had been having had for the moment been forgotten.  Fortunately for the bird seed and dog food supply as well as my peace of mind raccoons never stay long, and after a few days of tormenting  us they wander off to see what havoc they  might create somewhere else.  I am always happy to share these beautiful creatures with my neighbors.

Skunks are common here, and are even less welcome around the house than raccoons.    Way less welcome.  They are quieter than the raccoons, and aside from the occasional soft mewing sounds they make when together around the house I have never met a skunk who had anything at all to say.  Despite their ungainly manner of walking they are beautiful animals.  Baby skunks are surely in the running for cutest babies in the world.  Pretty doesn’t count for anything, however, when the skunks are under your house.  Getting rid of them is not easy.  Some neighbors  about four miles from here had a family of skunks under their house for several months.  Everything for thirty yards around that house smelled like skunk. They would have killed the skunks themselves, but none of them was willing to crawl under the house, and they could never get them out in the open during the day.  They finally hired a professional trapper to take care of them.  A few years ago we had a mother skunk and five little ones under our house.  The mother paraded the whole bunch of them by the front window several times, but by the time I got outside with a gun they had disappeared into the high weeds.  It took me several weeks to convince them to go elsewhere.  Tolerance for skunks, I would guess, is low no matter where one lives.

_IGP3983No backyard is complete without a squirrel.  Disney cartoons like Bambi, Snow White, and Cinderella had lots of squirrels, but my backyard generally has only one Red Squirrel at a time.  Red Squirrels have little tolerance for their own kind except for a short time during the breeding season.  If you see Red Squirrels outside that time frame it is likely they will chasing each other.  Eventually they will tire of this exercise, one will leave, and the other will become the resident squirrel in that area.

Like chickadees, Red Squirrels are often described with rather florid prose.  It is said this squirrel has a reputation for playfulness, and has a saucy regard for its neighbors.  It has been described as a light-hearted scold.  It is my opinion that this animal has one big serious attitude.  All the animals in the backyard have an attitude.  Birds squabble, rabbits chase one another, the skunks, although rather placid critters, take care of business in a unambiguous way when they need to, and raccoons can cause a lot of grief for any other animal when cornered.  The Red Squirrel, however, has an attitude that just won’t quit.  This little beastie is always on edge.

Whatever any animal does, of course, it does because it needs to.  The Red Squirrel’s day is almost entirely devoted to gathering, storing, and protecting food.  Because it does not hibernate it needs to gather enormous stores of food in winter caches, so even in the summer when the living is easy the Red Squirrel is taking care of business.  Some biologists have theorized that the squirrel’s belligerent disposition is a result of its need to continually protect these stockpiles.  That idea, if there is any truth to it, could apply to many animals, including humans.

Because the Red Squirrel combines physical attractiveness and energetic athleticism humans find its behavior to be amusing, hence the use of such adjectives as saucy and light-hearted.  For sure, I find them entertaining, but I doubt that the other critters in the backyard see them in this light.  To them, I suspect, the Red Squirrel is annoying, at best.
There are two feeders behind the house.  One is about eight feet from the kitchen window, and the other is thirty feet away near a long row of tall spruce trees that were planted some fifty to sixty years ago as a windbreak.  Both feeders are simple platforms about sixteen inches long and twelve inches wide.  I built a small gable roof over the one closest to the house, and the one near the trees is an open platform with sides about an inch-and-a-half high to help contain the seeds.  This feeder is attached to a clothesline pole.

The resident squirrel each year always seems to view these little feeders as his or her personal property.  The birds, of course, don’t see things this way, and so over the past twenty-five years each squirrel of the year has had to spend a part of its day chasing birds out of the feeders.  The feeder near the house is hard to defend because the squirrel must traverse twenty-five feet of open yard with appropriate caution, then crawl five feet up a pole to access the platform.  This works, but requires a lot of effort, and so the squirrel is less than tenacious about keeping this feeder to itself.

The rear feeder, however, gets a lot of attention.  The squirrel  spends most of its time in the spruce trees, and the feeder can be regularly policed.  One of the trees closest to the pole to which the platform is attached has a long bough which protrudes over the crosspiece at the top of the pole to which the wires themselves are attached.  For many years this bough was fully clothed with small twigs, themselves covered with needles.  Over time some of the twigs died, and eventually one of the squirrels discovered that the branch would serve as a good route from the tree to the crossarm of the clothesline pole from which it could drop down onto the platform.  The squirrels over the next couple of years improved the road by clipping all of the twigs off the branch from the clothesline pole back about eight feet toward the tree.

Now the squirrels had a clear route to the feeder, and they loved it.  Several times a day I might notice a small dark form moving through the shadows in the trees.  Down the trunk of one tree it would go, then out a branch and onto another protruding from an adjacent tree.  Up that tree trunk it would move, then down another branch, up another, and so forth and so on.  The dark form looked like a roller coaster car as it moved up and down through the trees on its way to the base of the branch extending out to the clothesline pole.  There the shadowy silhouette materialized into a squirrel that stopped for a moment to check for danger.  Having assured itself that all seemed safe it scurried down the branch toward the bird feeder.  The branch dipped toward the ground as the squirrel approached the end, and as it reached the bottom of its trajectory the squirrel leapt upward.  The branch began to swing upward like a vaulter’s pole, throwing the squirrel toward the crossarm from where it leapt immediately onto the feeder platform, scattering birds into the air like fireworks.   I have  wasted a large share of my life watching the antics of wild animals, and I have seen some marvelous things over the past forty years, but nothing better than this.  Whether or not the use of this branch can be classified as a technology, I cannot say, but it has been a major highway to the feeder for several generations of Red Squirrels.  A day rarely passes when it is not used half-a-dozen times.

Like many technologies, however, the tree branch is a means to an end that is not of much value.  No matter how many times a day the squirrel races down the branch to chase the birds they come back as soon as it leaves.  The squirrel has other things to do beside chase birds away from one feeder, and the squirrel understands this.  So about a decade ago the squirrel of the year decided that it could better protect all the sunflower seeds from the birds by covering them with spruce cones and other assorted items.  This was not worth any more than running down the branch a dozen times a day, but the squirrel must have thought it held some value because he persisted even though for a number of years I scraped all the cones and litter out of both feeders every time I filled them.   By noon of the same day the squirrel would have the seeds covered again.  This made no difference to the birds because they could easily move the debris aside to get at the seeds.  Birds have been pecking around in the debris to find food for millions of years, long before there were bird feeders.  Pecking around is what they do for living.

A couple of months ago I decided to see just how much stuff the squirrel would pile into the back feeder if I just left it there, and dumped the seeds in on top.  The feeder by the kitchen window still attracted the squirrel’s attention, but as usual only in a minor way.  By the end of the first week of this little experiment the back feeder contained a pile of detritus a couple of inches deep around the edges which tapered up to a peak about four inches deep in the middle.  The current makeup of this pile consists of:  two to three dozen spruce cones; one Douglas Fir cone; a number of twigs and broken branches; some spruce needles; several large, dried mushrooms, species unknown; a couple of pieces of wood; two dozen small rocks; three deer bone fragments; two desiccated corn cobs from the compost pile; remnants of old bird nests; a dozen or so dried cranberries from the Christmas tree; a section of honeycomb, several chunks of dried cow manure; two elk turds; and part of a candy wrapper.  If I were to sweep all of this crap out on the ground the squirrel would have it back in place within two days.  He must sleep well when he crawls into his nest at night.

Over the course of the years, it always seemed to me that the squirrel that happened to be in charge of the backyard in any given year had enough to do keeping the birds under control.  Apparently not, because one day about three years ago I was washing dishes after lunch when a commotion out by an old shed that sits at the southwest corner of the yard caught my attention.  I glanced in that direction just in time to see one of the rabbits disappear around the corner of the shed.  Three bounds behind the rabbit was the squirrel.  About fifteen seconds later the rabbit emerged with squirrel in hot pursuit, and the two of them tore past the near bird feeder, ran along the back of the house, and disappeared into the front yard.  In short order, they returned on a tear through the backyard on their way to the spruce trees where the rabbit quickly doubled back to race through the front yard with the squirrel still about three bounds behind.  By the time I reached the front window the rabbit had disappeared under the house, and the squirrel was hopping back to the spruce trees like a small wind-up toy.

Well, I had never seen such a thing, nor could have imagined it.  This was a squirrel with an attitude, for sure.  The rabbits and a squirrel had been around both feeders together for two or three years when this incident took place, and I had never noticed that they paid each other any attention.  The rabbits chased each other around every day, but the squirrel had never involved itself.  Maybe it decided that the rabbits looked like they were having fun, and decided to get involved.  Whatever the case, from that time on it was not uncommon to see the squirrel chasing one of the rabbits.  It happened while I was cleaning up the breakfast dishes this morning.

Occasionally I will see both rabbits and squirrel feeding amiably within two or three feet of one another.  They appear to have called a truce much as warring neighbors the world over do from time to time.  I never figure this will last long, and it doesn’t.  They will feed together for a number of days, but then one day I will see a rabbit flying by the bird feeder with the squirrel not far behind, and know the truce has been broken.  Of course, I never know which rabbit is being chased since they all look pretty much the same, and there are a dozen or more of them.  Perhaps the ones that feed near the squirrel have as big an attitude as the squirrel, and thus are left alone to eat in peace.  The ones being chased may be more timid, and the squirrel feels free to put them on the run.  As far as I know, the squirrel has never caught a rabbit, and I have always wondered what might happen if it did.  Unlike the genial squirrels and rabbits who cavort about in the cartoon movies, the ones in my backyard seem unable to share their territories with any degree of generosity.

In the late summer, Red Squirrels spend most their time clambering about in the coniferous trees where they nip off the cones, and allow them to fall to the ground.  The cones are then gathered, and hauled off to a cache somewhere, and it is not uncommon for these caches to hold many thousands of cones.  In August of 2008 I agreed to care for my daughter’s boxer dog, Bugzee, who was four years old at the time.  Bugzee is at the opposite end of the energy spectrum from my dog.  If something is going on my dog will be interested, but if not he just lies around waiting for something to happen.  Bugzee likes to make things happen.  One morning we were both out in the yard when I noticed the squirrel at the top of the spruce trees cutting loose the three inch long cones.  Some bounced down through the branches like woodland pinballs to land in the duff at the foot of the trees, and others went into free fall to land three or four feet away from the bottom boughs.

Bugzee had been behind the house trying to entice my dog into some excitement, and failing that came to see what I was up to.  He was immediately attracted by the falling cones, and went to investigate.  While he was inspecting one, another fell behind him, and he quickly turned to chase it down.  Another fell six feet away, and he bounded over to it.  I suppose he was puzzled over the appearance of these objects from out of thin air.  He was oblivious to the presence of the squirrel high in trees, and the squirrel, for his part, paid us no attention.  One after another the cones fell, and Bugzee raced to each as it landed.  He was examining the most recent arrival when another in free fall landed squarely on his rump, and bounced into the grass.  Before it landed the dog left the ground with all four feet to spin around one hundred and eighty degrees in order to confront the enemy.  The enemy was no where to be seen.  There was only a spruce cone lying on the ground.  Bugzee spun twice around in a circle looking for his adversary, but there was only the cone in the grass. He sniffed it, then walked over to me, and sat down to watch the shower of spruce cones tumbling from the tops of the trees.  As if to add insult to injury, the squirrel hopped out onto a branch from where he glared down at us, and let out the long, saucy, chattering sound so common to his kind.  I suspect he was scolding us, but it seemed light-hearted to me.  I doubt he meant anything by it.

It is snowing this afternoon, and the four inches that has fallen since morning covers several inches that has been on the ground for more than two months.  I can only see about three hundred yards in any direction, and I think I may be the only creature left on earth.  Near the house, however, two rabbits are sitting on the top of the woodpile, and a Northern Flicker is poking around under the eaves of the old granary.  In the backyard three rabbits are under the kitchen window while several chickadees and a Downy Woodpecker cycle in and out of the feeder above them.  And the squirrel?  Well, it is moving back and forth on the branch leading to the rear feeder, bringing a spruce cone on each trip to pile on top of the debris that has been there since November.  My saucy little friend rarely takes a break.

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