February 1st, 2017

From the window

As we stand here watching the birds at our winter feeder, I remember writing about the challenge of keeping the squirrels away nearly 10 years ago. By the time we had run through our repertoire of clever strategies to foil our hungry visitors, I was beginning to doubt that I could ever find a way to enjoy the birds without raising my blood pressure trying to chase away the squirrels.

We had failed at every attempt, each time being out-maneuvered by squirrels that were smarter, stronger and more agile than the ones our feeding devices were designed to thwart. In the end, we bought a squirrel feeder with the hope that harmony would prevail when all God’s creatures had what they needed.

Perhaps I was just too discouraged to follow through or maybe it was the Chinese language assembly instructions but, for one reason or another, I never did set up the squirrel feeder.

We lived with the competition in the yard until a family of woodchucks took up residence under our garden shed, probably attracted by the birdseed scattered by the daily battles taking place outside our window. You have to draw the line somewhere and we drew it at woodchucks. We took down the bird feeder in high summer when nature provided an abundance of nourishment within easy reach on the trees, bushes and flowers around the yard.

Years passed. The woodchucks moved out, maybe because of the cotton balls soaked in peppermint oil that we threw inside their den or the pinwheels we placed around their doorway. Woodchucks are supposed to hate peppermint and the sound of pinwheels spinning in the wind. Maybe they just wanted a change of scenery but, in any case, they left.

Birds came and went as birds do, many more in the spring and summer, a lot fewer in winter. The squirrels stayed with us, digging holes in the late summer lawn to bury acorns for their winter sustenance.

Every year after we had raked, bagged and dumped our annual harvest of autumn leaves and the fall chill turned to winter cold, we thought about feeding the birds but did nothing.

Last year, our daughter surprised me at Christmas with a Big Head Squirrel Feeder consisting of a large, hollow plastic squirrel’s head with an interior shelf to hold a squirrelly treat. We filled the shelf with peanut butter and nuts and suspended the head on a thin length of wire that we attached to the end of a hooked metal pole placed securely in the ground.

Within minutes, the first squirrel slipped under the head and stood on his hind legs to enjoy his snack, giving the impression of an ordinary sized squirrel with a giant orange head. His family and friends soon followed and we enjoyed many a good laugh watching and recording videos of this parade of jumbo rodents.

It wasn’t long before the wire broke, the novelty wore off, the frequent trips to refill the tiny shelf became too much of a chore. The squirrels were on their own and I didn’t care. Maybe I am just looking for a way to justify my callous disregard for their welfare, but I don’t think they cared either. They still scampered around the yard, played squirrel tag and dug holes in the lawn as soon as the ground thawed.

Occasionally, there was evidence of a fatal mishap in the road but I’ve never seen a skinny squirrel and I don’t think we lost any to malnutrition.

The earth slipped through another round of seasons and, leaning backward, sidled into the house of winter. Spring and summer had brought hummingbirds to special feeders dispensing sugared water of apparently no interest to squirrels.

Now with winter upon us, we missed the birds and tried again, this time with squares of suet, flavored with peanut butter, berries, and high-energy seeds. We hung the suet from the curved ends of two metal poles and watched as more birds than we had ever seen in one place came for breakfast. There were two varieties of woodpecker with long, pointed bills that jackhammered through the cakes of suet, chickadees, titmice, snow birds, sparrows, wrens, the occasional cardinal and blue jay and, yes, there were squirrels.

We were back where we started a decade ago. This time, a friend suggested covering the feeder’s support pole with PVC piping that was too slippery for the squirrels to grip.

We opted instead for a solution we found on the internet and attached a Slinky to the pole. Consisting of a long strip of coiled metal that works like a gravity-activated spring, the Slinky gently deposits upwardly mobile squirrels back on the ground like a department store elevator. Our daughter suggested the name, “Squirrelevator.” The little guys look surprised but unhurt.

Back on level one (Ground floor: rocks, dirt, grass, concrete patio), they seem to plan their next move and, when that doesn’t work, content themselves with the remnants of the birds’ feast.

The early results are promising but it’s too soon to tell. A lot has happened in the world and in our lives in the decade since I first tackled the squirrel problem but the small drama enacted daily on the back lawn can still stir our emotions. Longing and indifference, hope and resignation, curiosity, delight, frustration, and joy, all of these and more still jostle their way forward to take their moment in the sun, each one displaced by the next until the cycle begins again.

Like the squirrels and the birds moving through the yard, they move through the people watching from the window.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist formerly at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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