Burton on the Bay

Vol. 8, No. 21
May 25-31, 2000
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Backyard Fun with the Birds - and Squirrels

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.
-Unknown, but repeated by many to this day.

Hey, it isn't necessarily so. Create a spread of bird seed on your lawn, and there will be more interesting events on your side of the fence than on the other side. Trust me.

Once again, I've decided to feed the birds over the summer months, which I know some people frown upon, but both the wildlife and the Burtons reap the harvest. We're all selfish: The furred and feathered creatures enjoy the handouts, while we enjoy watching their antics.

Take this morning as an example. Before taking a seat on the glider to read the Sun, I noticed a catbird perched in the nearby catalpa. It was watching me - a reminder that I had neglected to put a liberal dab of grape jelly in its feeder.

It has gotten so in recent days, this particular catbird - one of I think four that have taken up residence here along the shores of Stoney Creek in North County - waits for its breakfast. It has gotten my routine better than I have. And it always appears impatient shortly after daybreak.

So I returned to the kitchen, got the jam and deposited it in the shallow box-like feeder. By the time I sat down less than four feet away, my feathered friend swooped down and commenced feeding - though first it paused on the rim to look me over.

After a minute or so of pecking into the sweet and sticky stuff, it popped back up on the rim and wiped its beak on the board that supports the feeder, then took a short flight to a birdbath about 15 feet away.

As it was taking a few swigs of the wet stuff, presumably to wash down the jelly, along came a brazen squirrel. The squirrel hopped up to the jelly, grabbed a chunk about three-quarters of an inch long, sat on its haunches and commenced nibbling.

Much, I might add, to the displeasure of the catbird, which, like all catbirds, can be very territorial. The next thing I knew, the bird dive-bombed the bewildered bushytail, which hopped down and started a search for sunflower seeds dropped to the ground from another nearby feeder.

But the catbird wanted to impress on the squirrel that the jelly I put out daily is literally for the birds. It ignored the grape stuff and gave pursuit, flying like an English Spitfire chasing down the Germans in Africa.

It swooped low to the ground just inches above the squirrel, which zigged and zagged. But the bird followed every zig and zag with cries of annoyance. Eventually, the squirrel made it to the safety of the brush along the tree line, and the catbird returned to the rim of the feeder, looked at me as if to say, 'See what happens to intruders.' Then once again it started the routine of gulping jelly, wiping its bill, then taking a drink at the birdbath.

Catbirds Rule the Burton Roost

That one incident was worth the $50 I'll probably spend on the big jars of jelly before early September when the catbirds usually depart for some unknown destination - well ahead of most summer winged visitors.

I've come to realize catbirds rule the roost at the Burton homestead. They even harass the bluejays, which sometimes get in a scuffle with the squirrels at feeders or scatterings amidst the grass - and bluejays are no slouches. I recall the time when Lois' dad Max found a fledgling jay on his lawn at the other side of the creek. He picked it up, intending to put it back in a low nest in a big bush, only to be attacked by a parent.

Max had some scratches on his head, enough to remind him to wear a cap when bluejays are around.

Between the jays and the catbirds, the dozen or so resident squirrels, including a white spotted one, are not having an easy time hereabouts.

Down on Squirrels

Count me among their adversaries - and more successfully than in previous years. I feed them corn liberally, but my efforts to keep them from sunflower seeds in the biggest bird feeder are paying off.

Friends and readers who also try to keep birdseed for the birds warned me that my latest acquisition, a Stop-A-Squirrel bird feeder, would be effective for only a short time. The bushytails would prevail.

But they haven't. It's been a month now, and they've yet to get a sunflower seed other than those scattered to the ground by birds.

The first couple of weeks, squirrels practically lived at the feeder, trying to figure how to get to its contents without activating the spring weight mechanism that closes the trough when anything bigger than a songbird lights on the perch bar.

They've hung upside down, straddled the outer edges of the feeder to avoid tripping the mechanism and sat atop the whole rig for hours studying the situation. But they haven't figured out a solution. It appears they have given up - at least for the time being - and now raid other food sources, including the jelly stand.

Bluejays are smarter and have a body better built for raiding the new feeder. They're heavy enough to trip the spring and close the trough, so they perch on the main frame close to its base, then stretch their necks and bills to take one seed at a time. They must have studied geometry because they have learned that by situating themselves close to the feeder's housing, their weight doesn't activate the spring.

It's something about a fulcrum, as I recall from geometry lessons nearly 60 years ago, but like me, the squirrels obviously didn't do their homework.

The bushytails have literally eaten themselves out of house and home - at least food - in another large feeder of cedar shown in the accompanying photo I took a couple of weeks back. They bypassed the protective baffle by dropping straight to the feeder from a guy wire above, got inside and feasted.

When there weren't enough seeds left inside, which they entered by raising the roof with their paws, they started chewing away the main interior cross support.

This has prompted me to stop refilling the feeder until I find another way to keep the squirrels out. It's a challenge for both of us, but it makes outdoor life on this side of the fence interesting, even exciting. Maybe only those who feed birds and battle squirrels will understand, but a backyard can be a fun place, even without a raised patio of wood or a swimming pool. Put out the seeds and the wildlife will provide the rest.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly