Friday, September 19, 2008

Now For Something Really Dangerous

Even though it should be, my biggest concern as a backyard feeder of birds is not the dangers to which I apparently am exposing them. It is much more personal than that.

Some bird advocates aver that home feeding causes the diminishment or loss of the ability of the feathered vertebrates to fend for themselves and the resultant creation of an entitlement mentality and/or a "dependent class" of avians. Others express alarm that these all-you-can-eat dining areas are de facto small game hunting ranches for bird predators such as cats and hawks.

There are however even more serious perils.

Backyard bird feeders and birdbaths can be sources of diseases that kill birds.

Diseases potentially spread by birdbaths and feeders include mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, aspergillosis, avian chlamydia, and trichomoniasis.

Potential dangers of feeding wildlife go beyond dangers to the birds that eat backyard seed and nectar. For one thing, those birds are often eaten by other wildlife, including raptors. Trichomoniasis, for example, is a significant problem for the Cooper's Hawks in urban Tucson. Second, in some parts of town, bird food on the ground may attract animals like javelinas, rabbits and squirrels, which in turn may attract predators such as mountain lions.
[Or in my state of Connecticut, black bears.]

I suspect that the Tucson Arizona squirrels Arizona mentioned above are of the ground variety. In Connecticut we have the more classic "tree squirrels".

(Although the term tree squirrel can refer to any arboreal member of the family Sciuridae, it is generally in reference to the common and widely distributed members of the genus Sciurus and close kin, the tribe Sciurini. These genera contain most of the common, bushy-tailed squirrels in North America, Europe, temperate Asia, and South America. The tree squirrels are close relatives of the flying squirrels.

They generally spend little time on the ground, preferring the heights of the forest canopy.)

And as a result they are attracted to the aerial birdfeeders in our yard -- and have adapted their behavior accordingly.

Most of the time, most of the squirrels are content to acrobatically array themselves on the food-tubes, gleefully defying gravity and the laws of flexibility and strength while they stuff their pouches with surfeits of sunflowers. Occasionally though they turn destructive.

One of our feeders has a plastic soda bottle as its seed holding area. It is a commercial product designed to accommodate to the very situation that I am about to tell you about. Yesterday I had to replace the bottle because it had a four-inch by three-inch hole eaten out of its side. Mars had observed the creation of this aperture over several days.

One of our regular squirrels, identifiable by the thin black band around its mouth, had been steadily working on it. Last week Mars' reading reverie was inconsiderately interrupted by the familiar sounds of tiny rodent teeth vigorously gnawing on pieces of molded polyethylene-terephthalate.

As she always does, Mars rose from her seat, opened the door, and heatedly berated the mini-marauder for its rude and destructive behavior, "Bad squirrel! BAD squirrel!" The miscreant immediately took leave of its chewing project and retreated to the branch from which the object of its dental desire descended, where it laid on its stomach, legs dangling, looking either sincerely repentant or absolutely disinterested depending on the observer's perspective.

Minutes later, the bottlewrecker was back on the job. Initially the hole was barely visible. Within days it was large enough for the squirrel to stretch the upper portion of its body inside the feeder and stuff itself amidst the climate-controlled, plastic environment. Mars suggested that we needed a new bottle.

When I went out to take it down a gray titmouse was perched on the edge of the cutout opening unsuccessfully attempting to lean forward and reach the remaining pile of seeds. Fortunately, rather than losing its balance and pitching itself beak first into the sunflowers, it righted itself and flew away.

But what if the titmouse was not unable to escape. Or worse what if the original bushy-tailed vandal had tumbled into the two-liter trap and either through panic, ignorance, or the simple laws of physics was not able to extricate itself. Once he finished eating all of the seeds left in the bottle -- first things first after all -- he would attempt to climb his way back up to the entry hole.

He would of course fail. (1) The inside wall of the feeder being slippery plastic with no imbedded footholds would be unscalable. (2) Even if he reached the hole his newly acquired girth could prevent him from fitting through. (3) There being no food involved, it would never occur to the squirrel to chew himself an outbound opening. (4) Someone (me) would have to rescue him.

It is hard to imagine that, even as frightened as the captive rodent might feel, he could be anywhere near as terrified as I would be. And all of the possible scenarios that I can imagine for resolving the imprisoned squirrel dilemma end up validating that fear. Every ending to the story that I can foresee has me lying in some form of hospital receiving some form of anti fatal disease medication through some unpleasant delivery mechanism.

Still, feeling at least partially responsible for creating the attractive nuisance that seduced the squirrel into its chamber of horrors -- even though Mars tried to warn him -- I guess that I would feel compelled to at least try and free the little guy.

Besides, compared to washing out the bird feeders and baths and coming into contact with all of the life-threatening germs that reside therein, hands-on wildlife rescue sounds positively appealing.

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