Burton on the Bay

Vol. 8, No. 8
February 24 - March 1, 2000
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Editors and writers are sometimes not as smart as they think

‘Tis sweet to hear the watch-dog’s honest bark.
—Don Juan by Lord Byron: 1819

‘Twasn’t the bark of an honest watchdog that alerted me to the latest dilemma in the love/hate relationship with squirrels on the side lawn of the Burton aviary on the shores of Stoney Creek in North County. Let’s say it was the honest waggle of a cat’s tail.

Wag of the Editor’s Finger

But before we go into that, I must admit a horrendous goof associated with the quote that led this column of last week. The quotation was Sports do not build character. They reveal it. So far so good. But I credited it to Heywood Hale Brown, New York journalist.

The computer age did me in. Of course, it should have read Heywood Hale Broun, and my goof is unforgivable — though Spell Check on my Apple computer must accept part of the blame.

’Twas running late Tuesday evening, and I knew the patience of a cranky editor at Bay Weekly in Deale was growing thin, as usual, on the night she wants to wrap up all the copy for a fresh edition. My tardiness not infrequently is often the topic we discuss as our modems connect to carry this column to her computer perhaps 50 miles distant as the crow flies or the phone lines string to the south.

I had punched in “Broun,” but when I called up Spell Check, it scrutinized my spelling. Broun wasn’t in its vocabulary, Brown was, so without further ado it made the change. Boy, am I embarrassed, the moreso as I have been reminded by readers of the mix-up several times since.

To think that a journalist screws up the name of one of the greatest and most prominent journalists of all time is, well, unthinkable. I should have spell-checked the Spell Check, but the clock was ticking — and I envisioned a fidgety editor walking circles around her desk grumbling about Burton the Procrastinator.

Accept my apologies, and as for the late Heywood Broun, the patron saint of the trade in the 20th century, I’ll make my apology by repeating one of his best observations ever. It’s from Chummy Charlie, written during the Great Depression.

I have known people to stop and buy an apple on the corner and then walk away as if they have solved the whole unemployment problem.

So much for confessions, or shall we say a feeble attempt at purification of what little journalistic credibility this writer might have — though I can’t help wondering why the editor didn’t catch the mix-up.

Sandra Martin is a veteran at the trade, a teacher of the trade and damned good at her trade, but for her the clock was also ticking, the moon was getting high in the sky and presumably she put too much faith in a writer who was probably writing words for pay before she was born.

Outwitted by a Bushytail

Now back to watchdogs, but modified in this instance to watchcats, which is what I consider my white feline Frieda, the 13-year-old still-peppy tabby who prowls within the house and on the east porch. Of course there was no bark, not even a meow. But her tail was thumping, and she was whinnying somewhat like a horse impatient for full gallop as she crouched at the bay window. Something had to be amiss on the side lawn.

I peered out the window, thinking perhaps a squirrel was chomping on sunflower seeds on the sidewalk almost directly below her, intruding in her bailiwick. Nope, no squirrel, bird or even the bunny that of late has taken to eating seeds.

I scanned the remainder of the lawn. Nothing.

Yet the tail still thumped, the whinnying went on, so I looked to her head and eyes, noting they were riveted a bit upwards. Could it be that a renegade bushytail had invaded my latest squirrel-proof bird feeder to feast on sunflower seeds? Not only could be, it was.

I spent hours making that feeder impregnable to marauding squirrels, and I was quite satisfied with my efforts. Since it was installed several days after wife Lois received it as a Christmas gift, I figured I had outfoxed the couple dozen voracious bushytails, to whom, incidentally, I daily ration liberal amounts of sunflower and other seeds, including cracked corn, in their own open feeder.

But I guess squirrels like a challenge as much as I do. Perhaps to them stolen seeds are sweeter than those freely given. No more than 20 feet from the feeder in question remained generous portions of seeds and corn. Obviously, the handouts were too easy.

War of Wits Renewed

So now I’m back at the drawing board. That new bird feeder is of Plexiglas and thick beautiful cedar, the latter being very vulnerable to the sharp teeth and strong jaws of the squirrels who get much practice chewing the holes of birdhouses larger — a strategy, I think, to gain temporary residence in bad weather. Or maybe to hoard seeds and walnuts.

I’m about to repair the birdhouses via application of thin metal at the holes, which should do the job. But as I write, I’m still in a quandary as to what to do about the feeder. First, I’ve go to learn how the squirrel arrives at the platform, its path to all the goodies.

Stretched between a large catalpa and an even larger black walnut, perhaps 45 feet away, is a fairly thick master guy wire, one end involving a big and sturdy coil spring to absorb shock when the wind howls to bend the trees. That wire is nearly 20 feet above the ground.

Dropping from the master wire is a very thin strand of 30-pound test fishing line that holds the feeder about six feet above the ground. In between the master wire and the feeder is a large dome baffle. But at the feeder is a hungry squirrel that obviously enjoys a challenge. How in tarnation does it get there?

Does it manage — upside down and clinging with tenacity — to make the long trapeze run from either the walnut or catalpa to the drop line, then maneuver around the baffle to reach my invulnerable feeder?

Or does it leap six feet into the air and manage to get enough of a grip on the feeder to do its dirty work?

Whichever way it gains access, once there this squirrel (I hope it’s the only one that has figured it out) is not inclined to gnaw away at the Plexiglas and cedar to get the sunflower seeds. No, it pushes up the cumbersome and heavy top, then crawls inside to eat, its waving tail hanging outside to remind me that squirrels are more ingenious than humans.

Now I’ve pushed up the roof of the feeder many times to refill it with seeds and it’s no easy task. The top is not only heavy but made more secure by suspension wires. This particular squirrel must be a combination of Charles Atlas and one of the Barnum & Bailey tightrope walkers known as the Flying Wallendas.

I can’t stay glued by the window day after day to catch the squirrel in the act. I can’t put the feeder any higher off the ground and still be able to refill it. And I can’t redesign the drop wire-pulley arrangement without much imaginative engineering.

If only Frieda — who obviously is as miffed by all of this as am I — could talk. She’s taking these latest shenanigans as seriously as I: She stays by the window where hopefully she will observe the squirrel’s route and somehow transmit the message to me. After all, if squirrels can be smarter than people, can’t cats — especially Frieda — be just as smart?

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly