Saturday, March 31, 2007

This is your head on suet!

Wild Bird Suet is the Crack Cocaine of squirrels. Trust me on this one - I've got seven little gray, furry "Cokeheads" hanging out in my yard as I speak.

The suet cafeteria at which these drug dependent rodents dine was put there to sustain the Downey Woodpecker that built a condominium in one of the dead branches of our Flowering Crab. I've checked the ingredients in the "Seed Treat" with which I stock this metal food holder, and I really do not see anything to cause addiction. (I mean, "Good God!" it's made in Fort Dodge Iowa. How much more wholesome can you get than that?) "Rendered beef suet, sunflower seeds, millet & corn" - according to the label - "Crude Protein: min 4%, Crude Fat: min 30%, Crude Fiber: max 12%". Although it's not exactly something that you'd expect from the kitchen of Julia Child (except for the high percentage of fat)- it is definitely not the output of Dr. Timothy Leary, or some other pharmaceutical chef either.

Yet, since their first taste of this suet souffle, these little tree rats have acted as if they just can't get enough of the stuff. And they're showing a lot of the behaviors of human addicts:
  • Dilated pupils
  • Hyper-stimulation
  • Intense euphoria
  • Anxiety and paranoia
  • Aggressive, paranoid behavior
Sure you may ask, "How is this different than the normal behavior of squirrels?" To which I would respond, "Picky, picky, picky!"

We've put suet out intermittently over the previous years but had never attracted any interest at all from our resident tree rats - nil, nada, zero, zilch.

Maybe it was the type of hard white fat we used in the past. We bought it from our local neighborhood market figuring that the high quality of their people-meats would trickle down into their other products. It was apparently handmade (whatever that means) and came with, its own little mesh bag and hanging string. It was however basically unprotected and, judging from the frustrated behavior of the birds, difficult to dine on.

But not for the neighborhood dogs, particular a Golden Retriever named "God Damn It! Rusty" (at least that's what I heard its owner call it) who would dart into our yard, rip down the oleaginous treat, and make off with it.

Then we got the suet basket, a metal cage designed to hold those machine-made suet and seed concoctions that are readily available at nurseries and the Audubon Society. The suet holder is more accessible to the birds who now have a sturdy foothold from which to operate. It is also "squirrel-proof". Which means of course that the little gray rats show up in droves to hang upside down from the top of the fat-holder and suck the "Seed Treat" out of its safely protected enclosure.

We have three other feeders hanging next to the suet cage. The other day I looked out the window to see enough gray furry bodies hanging from the tree to make me think momentarily that I had a crop of squirrels growing in my front yard. They were all hanging upside down, with their bushy tails flopped over in various degrees of lassitude. And they were stuffing the contents of the feeders into their mouths so quietly that only the rapidly decreasing level in each container indicated that anything at all was happening in the food court.

It reminded me of a fake BBC television documentary in which they draped large quantities of limp, cooked pasta over the branches of trees and pretended to tell the story of a fictional spaghetti harvest celebration. I briefly pictured all the tree limbs in my neighborhood littered with scores of limp, languid, slate-colored, food-sucking pelts. And the subsequent shindig when we reaped our bounty, sang some rousing tree-rodent chanteys, and feasted on Brunswick Stew and other squirrel delicacies.

But alas, the spaghetti and squirrel harvests are not for real. And my gray yard guest's lust for the fat-coated granola continues unabated. I'm refilling the suet feeder at least twice a week. And the other feeders every day, sometimes more frequently. I figure that’s about a two kilo a day habit that I am supplying.

I would shut them off - cold turkey - if Mars and I weren't so hooked on watching them every day. Is it still called co-dependency if the enablers don't want the addicts to recover because they are just so damn much fun to watch?

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Also Sprach Zarathustra

When I got up this morning the bird feeding bottle was down on the ground and four squirrels were gathered around it acting like the monkies with the monolith in the motion picture "2001".

For several minutes the recumbent vessel lay ripe for the plucking in the center of the squirrel circle, but none of the little gray seed-stalkers could make themselves get within a foot of it. So I went outside and put the feeder back in its rightful place on the long wire hanging from the mostly dead flowering crab branch. There was still food remaining so I did not bother to refill it.

About twenty minutes later, during our breakfast, Mars suddenly mentioned that the perch had been unscrewed from the bottle, and the remaining sunflowers had spilled to the ground. "Unscrewed?" I asked incredulously. "Unscrewed!" she replied.

The decanter, now totally seedless, basically weightless, and still hanging from its long white wire, swayed slowly back and forth in the barely existent early morning breeze. Periodically one of the squirrels would climb out to the point on the branch from which he would normally descend to the feeder and stare down with a baffled look on his face. Then he would scratch his right haunch with his right rear foot - presumably because he couldn't reach his head - and slowly descend the tree, along the way checking out the suet box on an adjacent limb.

A while later Mars noticed that the bottle was no longer visible and soon thereafter I strolled outside to replenish the food supply. The vacant wire still hung limply from the tree, and the screw-on perch lay directly underneath. The bottle was nowhere in sight. Nor were the squirrels.

I went into the house to ask Mars if she had seen where it might have gone. She laughed. After re-patrolling the immediate area again I began to widen the range of my search and spotted the missing magnum down at the end of the driveway. A couple of small bites had been taken out of the base, but other than that the container was still usable. I refilled it, re-hung it, and returned to the refuge of our family room. There was still no sign of the squirrels other than the tooth marks in the polymer.

About a half hour later I went outside to warm up the car and all four little gray tree rats lined up along the side of the driveway with their front paws extended over their heads and bowed forward from the waist in the "we are not worthy" salutation.

Well not really. Actually they were gathered around the tree in their normal predatory poses preparing to resume their morning of gluttony. But I knew in my heart that if they hadn't been evolutionarily wired to focus one-hundred-ten percent at all times on feeding their furry faces they would have accorded me the aforementioned honor.

Or not. I do however like to believe that somewhere deep in the tiny recesses of their meager little minds - but not the part that figures out how to unscrew metal perches - they are in some small rodent way appreciative of what we do for them.

In any event, they sure are fun to watch.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

But It's A Dry Snow

It is not just the heat that is dryer in New Mexico - it's the precipitation too.

Rain, which just doesn't happen in the desert southwest (can you spell d-r-o-u-g-h-t?), is by virtue of its absence that much less humid than the showers that frequently fall in the forest northeast. But snow, which does occur relatively often in the higher altitudes of "The Land of Enchantment", also seems to come with a noticeable lack of liquid content. Or at least that's how it seemed to me this past weekend when Mars and I were digging ourselves out from the second (and probably final) shovel-able snowstorm of the season in our home state of Connecticut.

Both of the "snow events" were light on the white (four to six inches) and heavy on the wet (fifteen to twenty pounds per square inch). Okay, a slight exaggeration for rhetorical purposes - but only a slight one. Until this year winter precipitation like this was extremely unusual in our neck of the woods. Both storms were forecast and post mortemed as "a wintry mix" which sounds to me like the melange of vegetables that might be served with coconut coated shrimp at your local nouvelle cuisine establishment this time of year. Instead it seems to be an eighth inch of snow, then a one-inch layer of ice, then another ultra thin layer of snow, and so forth. Had all of this been actual snow we apparently would have had two to three times the depth - and less than ten percent of the weight and work.

Mars, whose poundage along with several other things I do not and will not ever know, can walk on the latest yard-full of white stuff without even making a dent. I, whose one hundred eighty pound heft I am aware of, sank on about one half of my steps. The virtually weightless squirrels and birds that inhabit our property haven't left a discernible track since their playground became buried in white two days ago.

The snowblower was absolutely useless. Like all of us in the preceding paragraph it also rode up onto the thick crust of frozen-solid, moisture-laden "snow" barely making a dent in the surface as it spun its auger fruitlessly.

In what used to be called a normal snowstorm I would have looked at my inability to use that thirty-year old machine as a good thing. I actually like shoveling snow. To me it is one of the few absolutely pure jobs in the world - well defined and finite, uses pretty much all your bodily muscles, provides interim successes along the way, and is perfectly evident when it is finished.

Two of my favorite activities were shoveling snow at five in the morning before I went to work when no one at all was out and about, the air was wake-up-quick cold, and the sky was starry; and performing the same act on a bright sunny afternoon when it was cold enough to require a jacket to start but the heat of the labor caused the removal of layers down to a lone cotton turtleneck with ski cap and gloves - plus other socially required articles of clothing.

This shoveling was neither of these. The tip of the blade pinged helplessly off the rock-hard surface and it took repeated whacks and hacks with the ice chopper in order to loosen up the snow enough to allow removal. Mars and I settled on a routine wherein she chopped while walking backwards in front of me and I followed with the shovel. We live on a corner with sidewalks on both sides, a path across our front yard and a driveway. After almost two hours we had done the part of the path from the front step to the sidewalk and the walk itself - one shovel-s width. In contrast, on my five a.m./sunny day adventures in the past I myself could do the whole thing including the driveway in thirty to forty-five minutes.

The next day with the help of sun and temperature I chopped away for another ninety minutes and cleared the driveway apron and the area near the garage where the outside car would be parked. And yesterday I spent another forty-five minutes creating a pair of snow-free tire-paths to connect the two previously cleared areas. Today, in another three quarter hour chopping workout, I finally removed the remaining snow-ice esplanade and saw for the first time in four days the entire surface of my driveway.

When we were in New Mexico for Christmas we were snowed in for four additional days by fifteen to twenty inches of precipitation so light and fluffy that you couldn't have made a snowball out of it even if you added your own water - which of course you couldn't, this being the desert southwest and it being drought-plagued, etc.

I wished that I had brought my snow shovel. Especially since they seem not to have any of their own in Albuquerque or Santa Fe. Nor snowplows either. They just wait for it to melt. Which it does pretty quickly because (a) the sun is so intense and (b) the snow is so full of air and empty of liquid.

Which of course means that when we move out there to live I'll be setting my alarm clock for five a.m. on snowstorm mornings. The New Mexican sky is bigger and darker so there will be even more stars under which to do my early morning shoveling. And (based on what I have observed of the natives' snow-clearing proclivities) even less people out and about to share them with.

THEY, Mars included, will all still be in bed waiting for the sun to rise and the snow to melt.

THEY just won't realize all the fun that they are missing.

(Photos by Mars)

Friday, March 16, 2007

March Madness

I am really disappointed.

Three days ago I replaced the latest in the series of bird feeders that our resident squirrels have destroyed with another one of the same type, but hung from a much longer wire. The theory is that if the little tree rats cannot reach the container by hanging from the supporting branch with their back feet then they would not be able to ravage it.

So far it's working. And I am stunned.

Here is what I thought would have happened.

(1) Most likely scenario. The first squirrel to arrive grasps the branch with its hind feet and lowers itself slowly down towards the base of the feeder carefully controlling its backward bend with its rock-hard six-pack of abdominal muscles. He stops at the point where his prior conditioning has taught him the target should be, opens his mouth for the first big bite of plastic, and gets absolutely nothing - the squirrel equivalent of shooting an air ball. Embarrassed by his bad showing, but still confident of his ability to sink the big basket he calmly and effortlessly raises himself to the branch and lays down to plan his next move - his brow twisted in a look of delightedly challenged confusion. After a brief timeout he lowers himself back down and using his front paws on the wire pulls the bottle up to meet its fate.

(2) Next most probable chain of events. In the book "The World According to Garp" there's a dog that is taunted by a nemesis cat that places itself just beyond the range of the dog's chain and sits mockingly. The canine repeatedly runs (apparently fruitlessly) to the end of its lead until, unbeknownst to the feline, the dog has stretched that restraint just enough to reach it - and successfully pounce. Inspired by this story one of the more literate squirrels will continually drop itself headfirst in a bungee jump-like maneuver until it elongates itself sufficiently to devour the decanter. Unlike the Garp pooch whose plan unfolded over several chapters, the squirrel lengthening will occur overnight and the bottle will be demolished by the time we come home from our morning workout the next day.

(3) Farfetched, but based upon past performances definitely possible. The tree rats will choreograph and execute a reverse squirrel pyramid. This move will be equivalent in daring and degree of difficulty to the most complex structure ever formed by either the dance troupe Pilobolus or the best college cheerleading squad. They will of course rotate who gets to be on the lowest part in order to ensure equity and make sure that the formation doesn't become bottom heavy. Including rehearsals the plan should take twenty-four hours max to implement.

(4) Impossible to conceive. The squirrels surrender sole possession of the bird feeder to, of all things, the birds.

Personally, what with March Madness and all, I'm rooting for scenario number three. There is nothing more entertaining or inspiring than watching a group of underdogs heroically banding together to pull off that big upset.

So come on you guys! In spite of what it may look like, Mars and I really are rooting for you.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Survival of the Stubbornest

Okay, the short bottle didn't work well at all. And neither did the longer one with which we replaced that diminutive decanter. One, or possibly more, of the squirrels is addicted to a topside entry into the bird feeder. Either that or he\she is hooked on the taste of plastic - the ultimate non-organic food. Or maybe it's the silver plumbing tape. A couple of layers of that strong, cloth-backed, waterproof adhesive binding wrapped around the base of an empty bottle of citrus flavored liquid might be a squirrel's idea of duct l'orange. Who knows what goes on in those little gray guys' little gray matter.

Anyway here is what has happened since the bottle break-in that was captured by our surveillance camera on March 8, 2007.

Our supply of readily available replacement vessels had dwindled down to two - another short one, and a one-liter former seltzer container - plus a second bubbly water one being worked on. So I decided to repair the damaged one with duct tape in the vain hope that if it was strong enough to hold water in, it could keep squirrels out.


As anybody, including myself, could have told me it just wasn't going to work at all. Nonetheless I wrapped three layers of the silver sticky stuff around the base of the beleaguered bottle, two horizontal and one vertical - carefully extending the coverage far enough down the length of the feeder so as to block all downward squirrel sightlines into the seed.

The result was so ugly that even the dumpiest trailer park would have legislated it out of existence. But then again it didn't last long enough to come to a vote.

"Jack The Ripper" actually did look perplexed for about two minutes when he returned to the scene of his earlier crimes. He crawled down the wire, poked his head around suspiciously as if sizing up the situation, sniffed once or twice at the newly opaque object that confronted him, and climbed back up onto the branch to cogitate on the subject (eyes squinty, forehead furrowed).

Then he behaved exactly the way that thousands of his ancestors and peers would have done when confronted with an unfamiliar new wrinkle in an old familiar situation. He did exactly the same thing he did before - and it worked like a charm. For people continuing to do the same thing in the face of change is considered a sign of insanity. In squirrels it is one of the keys to their evolutionary success. In people what would have been considered as taking a step back to carefully reassess the situation for squirrels would be thought of as two minutes of their life that they would never get back.

I patched over the resulting damage - figuring that if irrational repetition worked for the rats it would eventually for me too - but gave up on that after my first attempt was undone in about one half the time it took to do.

I went back to the long bottle approach. "J.T.R." stuck with his top-down decimate-and-devour strategy. The feeder remained in tact for about twenty-four hours. Once again I tried the duct tape. Once again it failed - this time with so much of the tape-protected area destroyed that the container no longer had any places left from which it could be hung.

After several hours of thought I have put up a new one-liter bottle. But this time I'm hanging it from a much longer wire - hopefully a slightly greater distance than a squirrel's stretched out body. So far that he will not be able to dangle upside down from the branch and sink his little rodentia into the base of the bottle.

When I came upstairs to write this my antagonist had not yet returned. So as of this moment I do not know the status of my latest attempt to thwart him. I don't really have my hopes up though.

Anybody who, regardless of the changing circumstances, continues to succeed by doing the same thing over and over and over again is just too much of a match for those of us who need to evolve in order to survive - Darwin, who obviously never fed squirrels, not withstanding.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Time In A Bottle

What we have here is a squirrel at the crowing moment of his seed-stealing career. What isn't clear is whether it is the height of laziness or the peak of cleverness.

Just to be clear as to what we are looking at. One of our bird feeders consists of a metal perch screwed onto the neck of a soda bottle. It comes in a kit. The theory behind it is that since the squirrels are going to destroy pretty much any object that separates them from food - why not use plastic bottles that are on their way to the recycling bin to temporarily hold the birdseed.

(If you think of recycling as a form of reincarnation for inanimate objects then allowing the bottle to sacrifice itself in this way probably gives it bonus points towards its next level of existence - perhaps as one of those un-openable clamshell packages. Or if it is really lucky as a recycled plastic fiber sweater for Salma Hayek.)

Over the past twenty or so years we've gone through five or six of the perches - somehow the rod on which the bird is to roost breaks off - and about one thousand five hundred sixty polymer containers. This is a never-ending problem for Mars and me who are not soda drinkers. Thank goodness for family and friends who are.

The latest one lasted three days. Usually we use the large one-liter soda bottles but being out of them we substituted a smaller quart-sized one. Normally the squirrels, whose bodies are about one liter long, hang upside down along the length of the seed decanter and suck the seeds out of the opening in the perch.

With the shorter bottle one of them apparently thought that a more direct approach through the feeder top (bottle bottom) was more efficient.

Maybe he disliked al fresco dining - it was a mighty cold and windy day.

Maybe polymer is a good source of fiber, for squirrels anyway. We never have found any bottle bits or pieces on the ground under the scene of decimation.


By the end of the day the bottom of the feeder was filled with the hulls of husked sunflower kernels and the gray raider and his cohorts had returned to their warm and snuggly nests.

I replaced the violated vessel - this time with a liter sized one that was formerly filled with seltzer drunk solely for that purpose. I was glad to do it. At least for a few hours I won't have to worry about rescuing a trapped squirrel that is freaked out from spending too much time in a bottle.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Don't Think About It So Much

The problem with diversity is that there is just too much of it to keep track of. If everything were the same than it would be much easier to identify the differences.

For example the other night at my men's garden club meeting we had a speaker talking about our state's native trees. She presented a slide show to illustrate her presentation beginning with a photo of the new growth in a previously denuded area. They were pine trees - White Pines in fact. We could tell they were that species, she said, because the needles appear in groups of five.

The picture clearly showed us that. And to help us figure out these firs in the future, we should remember that five is also the number of letters in the word "white" - even though other pines have quinta-clustered needles, and all of their names do not have five letters. Nor do all pines with five letter names have that number of needles. And needles of the Red Pine - another picture - which has three letters in its name, appear singly, i.e. in groups (?) of one. There are apparently no pine trees with single character names - not even hieroglyphic ones to replace "The tree formerly known as..."

My mind meanwhile was still back on the very first snapshot - the one that showed, from a distance, short evergreens with a few other start-up bushes and trees along the periphery of a weed-infested field. I was busy congratulating myself for being able to pick out the conifers in the crowd. And thinking that all of the distinctions that would be pointed out during this talk would be interesting and informative - for the duration, but not much beyond it.

It's sort of like the squirrels that Mars and I see on a daily basis - some (seven at the moment) in our own yard. Others as we go about our day. We both assign them names ("Oh look, there's Carlotta") - the joke being that since we really can't tell one gray rodent from another the names are totally arbitrary, with the same name undoubtedly being assigned to a different animal every single time. And each squirrel probably receiving a different epithet whenever we see him or her.

Occasionally a tree rodent will appear with a blatantly obvious identifier. At the moment, for example, we have one with a tail from which a three-inch chunk of fur is missing. Still I at least don't peruse the nether quarters of any critter before I proclaim, "Here comes Geno. Or Allison. Or Clytemnestra." The consequences of misidentifying "Chunky" are nonexistent, for us and, more importantly, for him. Or possibly her. (I really mean it when I say that I haven't scoured the hindquarters of our yard-guests that carefully.)

The whole squirrel name thing is, in fancy terms, a "distinction without a difference":
"...a type of argument where one word or phrase is preferred to another, but results in no difference to the final outcome...In legal terminology it means a change in definition which does not change the set which is defined. For example changing 'unseparated married men' to 'males who have a non-separated spouse' is a distinction without a difference."

Our relationship with the squirrels obviously does not depend upon our ability to distinguish one of the animals from another. It is instead contingent upon our continuing to supply them with nourishment in the form of sunflower seeds, kernels of corn, and cakes of suet - just as we have to generations of their equally misnamed predecessors. And will furthermore to their successors - ad infinitum (I know, wishful thinking).

And likewise the squirrels' interconnection with us requires as little awareness of differences in us as they demonstrate daily in their indiscriminate ingesting of our offerings.

This lack of a need for drawing distinctions obviously does not apply to everything in our world. Reminders that "Leaves of three, let it be!" and "Red touching yellow, dangerous fellow!" help keep us away from both poisonous ivy and reptiles.


But in general both Mars and I have tended to under-analyze rather than agonize. That is pretty much the way we selected our house, our cars and (probably) each other.
Our gardens are filled with perennial flowers whose shade or sun preferences we know, but little else (including their names) other than from whom we got them.

Maybe it was because our academic backgrounds (both Philosophy majors) and our former careers (Information Technology geeks) required such extreme attention to detail that we didn't have the energy to devote that same level of focus to the "real world". From our successes in both of these areas it is evident that when we need to be discerning and fastidious we definitely are.

But now Mars and I retired. And therefore free to pick and choose when to turn our perspicacious abilities on or off. We realize that if we don't use it we'll lose it - so total intellectual abstinence is not an option. Currently we are developing web sites for two of the organizations in which we volunteer. As well as writing ruminations like this one.

And that is pretty much about all of the thinking I plan to do on this subject. Besides I've got to go now. Mars just told me that Roberto is appearing at the sunflower seed feeder, and it has been long time since I've seen him - at least by that name.

(Roberto in repose...or perhaps Rachel.)