Burton on the Bay:

Squirrely Maneuvers
Watching While They Work

In the World of Animals, the squirrel is what an ant or bee is in the World of Insects. A worker.

For the past couple weeks, I've closely observed bushytail activity up here at Riviera Beach in North County. They're active from dawn to dusk.squirrel

Most of their running around involves the chase for food. They are gluttonous; they never gather enough nuts, berries, corn, bird seed or whatever to satisfy their compulsive need to cache food for winter.

The other day, I saw one running along the rail of the fence. It held firmly in its mouth not one but two black walnuts. I thought the nuts might have been connected by the stem, but after a long trot on the rail, the bushytail paused at a post, set one down and started chewing the bitter green coating from the other.

It didn't finish the job before trotting off to bury the first walnut somewhere on the cliff of Stoney Creek, and a minute later it was back to pick up the second and scoot off in the same direction. Had to be the same squirrel: it went straight to the walnut.

A cardiologist in the squirrel community would starve unless it established its own cache of food for winter. Squirrels do so much running about their tickers and the rest of their anatomy have got to be in top shape. Maybe that's why they can live to 15 years.

Plenty of exercise, no heart problems - though sometimes I wonder seeing that their diet hereabouts is usually nuts and seeds, which contain an awful lot of fatty calories. I'd like to eat more nuts - nothing better to spruce up the morning cereal - but I've had my bypass surgery and resist temptation.

I guess the squirrels hereabouts don't have to worry. They burn off all that fat in their small muscular bodies only eight to 10 inches long and mighty slender.


Squirrel Psychology

Probably, they would grow much bigger if they got to eat all the food they stashed away in the warmer months. Wildlife scientists tell me they don't because they usually cache their food helter-skelter, then have to forage for it again in winter.

Maybe most squirrels do, but I have my doubts about some. Back in Vermont where Aunt MiMi tends what was once a farm, she not infrequently finds black walnuts and hickory nuts stashed away in neat piles in some remote nook in the big red barn.

Those squirrels know what they're doing. When the snow is deep as it gets in Vermont winters, they can retreat to the barn to escape the cold of New England and have a comfortable snack. No need to burrow beneath all the white stuff to locate a black walnut.

MiMi likes squirrels, though not in her bird feeders, which they quickly clean out. First, they eat what they want, then store the rest for a snowy day. Seems like one squirrel can eat more sunflower seeds than a flock of famished songbirds.

That can get expensive, but MiMi has another bone to pick with at least one Vermont squirrel. MiMi's past 90, in the best of condition, yet she doesn't appreciate spending an afternoon picking up the walnuts on the lawn, which she did the other day.

Then she dumped them in the nearby woods where the squirrels could still enjoy them. But obviously squirrels don't appreciate such thoughtfulness.

The next morning, the walnuts were back in the lawn - at least most of them; some might have been buried. For what curious reason would squirrels bring nuts back to whence they came?

Squirrel psychology is mysterious, but MiMi did them one better. She again gathered the walnuts, and this time drove them to the banks of the Battenkill a mile away, where presumably other squirrels are busy storing them.


Nothing's Squirrel Proof

But, as with the squirrels of my backyard, those marauders of MiMi's yard have little to worry about. There are always the bird feeders. Long ago, I gave up efforts to design a squirrel-proof bird feeder.squirrel eating

Sometimes I came up with one that appeared to work, but though squirrels are said to have short attention spans, they start scheming when they discover food is present and not easy to get.

Set up pie plates and canopies on drop-lines to feeders, and a squirrel will figure a way to bypass them. It might fall to the ground nine times out of 10, but once it maneuvers around the deterrent, it stays put until it eats its fill - then scatters much of the remaining feed to the ground below where it can get it later.

Short attention spans, ha! I should have a memory like that.

In Yankee Magazine, I saw a system advertised as "squirrel-proof." A week later, I had one. It worked - until a squirrel or two learned it was possible to eat through the clear plastic large Coke bottle in which went the seeds to drop through a hole to two perches for feeding birds.

Since then, within a day or two, big holes were gnawed through the bottles. I should have anticipated this. Any critter than can chew through the bitter outer wrappers of black walnuts certainly wouldn't mind munching through clear plastic.

So the squirrels again have won the day. They've taken over the lawn, the bird feeders, everything - which means more feed put out each day to ensure there's enough that the birds can get some.

I noted the latest of odd squirrel behavior today just down the road as I headed for the feed store. Crossing the pavement in a parallel pattern at a fair trot were a big black and white cat and a squirrel, not more than 20 feet between them, neither interested in the presence of the other.

Can it be that after mastering humans, squirrels are learning to coexist with felines? What's next?

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VolumeVI Number 45
November 12-18, 1998
New Bay Times

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