Sunday, January 15, 2012

Life at the Playscape

Even though it started out badly, this is turning out to be a very good winter for the squirrels that reside at the Meehan homestead.

On the last weekend of October a snow-laden limb from our Magnolia tree flopped over and severed our connection to our street’s electrical power grid – the very same grid that had already ceased to operate that afternoon. At about the same time a large Oak branch containing one of the tree rat’s larger condominiums (aka “dray”) crashed to the ground. And the bough on our Flowering Crab tree that held our three principal bird/squirrel feeders broke off and crashed to the earth. Several trash bins full of other lumber also tumbled into our yard.

As part of the first wave of our cleanup, Marsha and I retrofitted the seed cafeterias to one of the remaining offshoots of the decorative fruit tree, and rested the broken end of the severed limb atop one of the other remaining branches in order to provide a bit of nearby shelter to our guest diners. Within hours the now homeless refugee rodents were drowning their sorrows in pouch fulls of sunflower seeds. And we were off to the town’s well-heated Community Center where, along with our Hartford based health club, we spent our waking hours during the weeklong blackout.

Ironically we had tree work scheduled for our yard on that Monday. Realizing that the planned work would have to take a backseat to emergency jobs they now had to do I called the tree company and, asked if they could please make a quick stop and prune back our Magnolia so as to eliminate the possibility of another power wire takedown.

I also told them to leave the flowering crab – which had been on the original order as a “check it over and assess” – alone. A week or so later, after we had our electricity back, an out-of-state subcontractor for our arborist dropped by while we were out and (a) cut back the wrong parts of the Magnolia and (b) carried away the fallen branch that Marsha and I had so carefully set in place.

The yard pets seemed unfazed by these arboricultural errors. Marsha and I however had come to like the new form of entertainment provided by the broken limb playscape. Birds gathered on the dead branch, chattering away as they waited their turn at the dining table.

Squirrels, sometimes performing as a group, ran in a continuous nose-to-tail cycle across and up and down the fallen branch – abruptly changing direction in perfect unison through a series of rapid-fire, gravity-defying maneuvers impossible to execute in three dimensions, and equally difficult to describe in 2-D words. When doing their solo acts the bushy-tailed rodents leapt fearlessly from their new playground perch onto our latest “squirrel proof” feeder – which up until that point had largely lived up to its name.

This alleged squirrel foiler is made up of a square-sided plastic tube with several feeding holes, surrounded by a separate metal cage with leaf shaped decorations. The cage is attached to springs. The tube is not. When a squirrel latches on to the outer enclosure, it drops down and its ornamental leaves cover the apertures on the immovable plastic feeder. Amazingly this Rube Goldberg contraption actually functions as advertised. The squirrels' weight does indeed force the metal shell down so that its doors shut tight against the plastic-lined feeding holes on the interior tube. The little rats still climbed up onto the feeder and gnawed away at the metal (unsuccessfully) and plastic (successfully) but quickly became frustrated and returned to the ground where they were humiliatingly forced to feed on the castoffs of their much lighter feathered dining companions.

But now, apparently fired up by the easy access provided by their new “shelter”, the squirrels hurled themselves at the beleaguered feeder with such frequency that at pretty much any time during the day one of the tree rodents was either on, or in mid-flight on its way up to the feeder.

And they stayed on it longer when they got there.

What the squirrels finally figured out, possibly under the influence of the playscape induced adrenaline, was that once they gnawed away enough polyethylene to make the food portals larger than their covers, the sunflower seeds simply tumbled into their greedy little mouths.

And we figured out that if we wanted this traveling circus to continue its performances, then we needed a new playscape. Fortunately one of the large branches from our copse of arborvitae cedars had also been damaged during the surprise snowstorm.

So with a little pruning-saw action, and some long distance dragging, the birds and squirrels had a newer, even better (because it had foliage) “shelter”. Marsha decorated it with shiny red, blue and gold ornaments for the holidays and I verbally stopped the arborists from removing it when they finally came to perform our originally contracted work and to properly prune the Magnolia.

Our house wires are safe from our timber. And, as the real cold weather settles in, our birds and squirrels continue to find new ways to enjoy their playscape – and entertain us. Not only is it going to be a good winter for our squirrels, but hopefully for us too.

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