Monday, March 26, 2012

Squirrel Proof - Not Chupmunk Proof

Our intermittently appearing chipmunk has surfaced again – this time in our one-and-only authentically squirrel-proof bird feeder.

Mars and I have had a chipmunk-in-residence at this house for as long back as we can remember – sometimes two – but 95% of the time just one. We don’t see him (or her) everyday, or even every week – especially during the colder weather when he apparently goes into a light dormant state, awakening periodically to nibble on the food he has stashed with him for the seasonal sleep-in.

Usually, when we do spy him, he is darting into our garage through the slight gap between the overhead door bottom and the driveway. His second-most popular spot is hanging around the side door of said garage, which we can look upon from our south-facing kitchen window. And when the weather warms up he can also be spotted scurrying into one of our drainpipes when we surprise him doing whatever it is that chipmunks do around downspouts.

Oddly, the least common place to see the chipmunk is in the vicinity of our bird feeders. Maybe the squirrels scare him away – although we have never seen any such confrontation. Perhaps he is there more than we realize but his brown camouflage pelt blends in too well with the coffee-colored pine bark mulch that covers the surrounding ground. Or it could be that he dines during the evening hours when the buffet lines are pretty much empty, and Mars and I just aren’t watching.

On those rare occasions when we do see him at the eateries he has always been scrambling about on the ground beneath them, flipping through the debris that has been scattered by the less-than-neat eating birds and squirrels that actually take their food directly from the opening in the plastic feeding tubes. But never, not ever, have we seen the light and dark striped ground squirrel consuming food anywhere other than – the ground.

And then the other day I was on the second floor when Mars called up to me, “Quick. Look out the front bedroom window. The 'chipster' is on one of the feeders.”

By the time that I got to the viewing area, he was leaving. But I did see enough to figure out what was going on.

Ironically the diner he was vacating was the only one we have that has ever proven to be effectively squirrel-proof.

It’s a homemade job, designed by the owner-operator of a “Wild Bird’s Unlimited” emporium in the town just across the Connecticut River from our home base. I went looking for something from which the squirrels could not eat. He showed me several, most in the same price range as our house when we bought it 35 years ago. Sensing my lack of enthusiasm for investing our retirement savings into such a device, he offered that I could construct my very own impenetrable food fortress by placing a relatively inexpensive plastic cylindrical “Droll Yankee” feeder inside a slightly larger metal cage of the same shape (sold separately) with openings large enough for basically every bird that I want to attract, but way too small for squirrels.
Obviously the apertures were not too little for chipmunks.

A couple of days later we saw him again inside the same encaged eatery. He was affixed squirrel-like to the plastic cylinder, upside down, wolfing down the black oily sunflower seeds. I was on my way out, but I waited as long as I could to study his eating habits. They were pretty much as described in the preceding. I opened the family room door and he scampered rapidly out through the nearest available opening in the cage, up the lattice, up the suspending chain, and onto the flowering crab tree from which most of our cafes dangle. Then I lost sight of him.

That evening, when I was refilling the feeders, I noticed that the cage-enclosed one was abnormally low – down by more than enough sunflower kernels to fatten up an overindulging chipmunk to several times the size of the opening through which it gained access. And yet he was not imprisoned within. I hadn’t noticed any significant avian traffic at the “Droll Yankee” during the day, so I suspect that the little brown ground squirrel was responsible for most of the shortage. Probably, like during the cold months, he took it back to his secret lair to snack on later. But what if someday he decides not to do “take out”, and instead settles himself in one the perches and just spends the day chowing down in situ.

This is something that I choose not to think about. The design of my homemade squirrel-proof/chipmunk-friendly feeder does not include an escape hatch for the suddenly obese. Once again, as he usually is, “the chipster” is on his own.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Stalking the Sacred Datura - or Vice-Versa

Now I think I understand my unusual degree of interest in the plant Datura. It has been stalking me.
Comedian Robins Williams famously has said, “If you remember the '60s, you weren't there.” I actually do remember the sixties. I never doped myself up with the herbaceous, mostly white-flowered poisonous/hallucinogenic plant – or with any other non-prescribed narcotic for that matter. But I did read about its vision-inducing qualities in “The Teachings of Don Juan” – a “must-read” for even the straightest, counter-culture sympathetic, twenty-something in the late 60’s early 70’s. Even the name of the plant, “Sacred Datura” enhanced the mystical ambience of the drug-centric esoterica (fact or fiction?) that author Carlos Castaneda described – way cooler than “Western Jimson weed”, one of its other names, could have.

I think Marsha and I saw the flower for the first time on our trip to the Mediterranean Island of Malta in 1997. The plant grows wild on the main archipelago and its companion isle Gozo and is a different variety – “Datura innoxia” or “Downy Thorn Apple” – than its literary southwestern cousin. Although to this untrained eye the dissimilarities would not have been discernible.

I don’t actually remember seeing the white blooming vine nor could I find any photos – but we must have because it immediately popped into my mind several years ago when I was toying with a fictional novelette about the fictional Men’s Garden Club of Malta and its role in the real Great Siege of that island by the Turks in 1565. In my still-to-be-totally-developed plot the members of the MGCoM repel the invading army and armada of the Ottoman Empire and save the day by creatively using their floricultural smarts. And to make that happen I needed a Hitchcockian McGuffin from the plant world to be the horticultural hero. “Tada!. Datura!” The story is still incomplete – a “deus” sans “ex machina”.

Marsha and I came upon some non-fictional Datura two years ago in coastal North Carolina. We were staying in a beachside condo on Emerald Isle – south of the Outer Banks (SOBX on your bumper sticker).

Every morning at around 7:30 a.m. we walked over to an adjacent convenience market to get the daily newspaper. The grounds of the condo are landscaped with a mixture of southern perennials and annuals along the pathways between the units, and a combination of prickly pear cactus and white trumpet-shaped flowers on squash-like vines along the sides of the driving area.

A few evenings into our getaway I noticed that the large white flowers were still wide open well after dark. Then, one day around 10:00 a.m. I noticed that they were closed up.
Marsha, who had observed all of this strange plant behavior days before, opined that they looked to be a form of Datura. The Carolina species turned out to be a dusk to dawn version of the plant -- sort of a "Deadly Nightshift".

"The Datura, or bush moon plant has six-inch or larger white trumpet flowers that open at night and remain open well into the following day... Keep in mind that all parts of this plant are poisonous." (

Datura, it turns out, are a favorite of the "Night Gardening" movement -- the use of plants that either bloom exclusively at night, or are open during the day but do not release their scent until evening. I shared my discovery with the membership of the real life Men’s Garden Club of Wethersfield, which decided, under the direction of Paul Courchaine, to find a location and plant a nocturnal flowerbed somewhere in town. We did and we did, with the cooperation of a Lucky Lou’s restaurant.

Marsha recognized the North Carolina Datura from those we had seen in New Mexico – more specifically several specimens that were decorating various properties in our daughter-in-law and son’s Santa Fe neighborhood. I think we have also seen them in less domestic locations – along hiking trails and in some long deserted Native American cave dwellings, thinking at the time that they were fruitless plants with squash blossoms.

The southwest variety is, I am reasonably certain, Don Juan’s one. And, it turns out, a genus of the plant that was actually discovered by and named after a native of my hometown of Wethersfield Connecticut. The scientific name is “Datura wrightii” and the honorific commemorates the botanist Charles Wright.

Here is the wiki:

“Charles Wright (October 29, 1811 - August 11, 1885) was an American botanist.
“Wright was born in Wethersfield, Connecticut, the son of James Wright and Mary née Goodrich. He studied classics and mathematics at Yale, and in October 1835 moved to Natchez, Mississippi to tutor a plantation owner's family. His employer's business failed two years later, and he moved to Texas, working as a land surveyor and teacher. During this time he collected plants for Asa Gray. In 1849 he joined an army expedition through Texas, botanising from Galveston to San Antonio and then on to El Paso. In the spring of 1851 he joined the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey. His collections from these two trips form the basis of Gray's Plantae Wrightianae (1852-53).

“Between 1853 and 1856 he took part in the Rodgers-Ringgold North Pacific Exploring and Surveying Expedition, collecting plants in Madeira, Cape Verde, Cape Town, Sydney, Hong Kong, the Bonin Islands, Japan and the western side of the Bering Strait. Wright left the expedition at San Francisco in February 1856 and went south to Nicaragua. His collection of plants from Hong Kong was used by George Bentham for his Flora Hongkongensis (1861).

“Between 1856 to 1867 he led a scientific expedition to Cuba. In 1859 he joined Juan Gundlach in the area around Monteverde, and in the winter of 1861-62 they explored together around Cárdenas.

"He is commemorated in the names of a number of plants, including Datura wrightii, the genus Carlowrightia (wrightworts), and in the name of the Grey Flycatcher Empidonax wrightii.”

100 years later and he might have been one of the original members of the Men’s Garden Club of Wethersfield too. With the fantasy-inducing specimens that he could have brought to the party our initiation ritual would be a lot more noteworthy.

Or maybe he actually did start up such an organization back then. But it was the (18)60s, and no one remembers.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

OBX Beware

One more interesting thing about living in Wethersfield Connecticut.

O M G! My town's
abbreviation decal –
W T F!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Thoughts on...

...being awakened by woodpeckers woodpecking at sunrise.

Hunting for bugs or
territorial drumming –
it’s still too early.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Know When To Hoe Them, Know When To Walk Away

I planted our bed of miniature hosta eleven years ago on the day that my fellow jurors and I sent a twenty-year old man to prison for the rest of his life.

The trial took seven days. Our jury deliberation took less than two hours. There were eleven different charges of varying degrees of severity - attempted murder being the most serious. We voted secretly on that one and we all said "guilty". Then we went through the remaining charges one-by-one and came to the same decision on each of them. Because it went so quickly we wanted to sleep on our decisions. So we adjourned for the rest of the day.

When I got home that afternoon the package of shade-tolerant, large leafed, perennial flowers that we mail-ordered had arrived. It was a warm April day and my mind needed something basic, earthy, and positive to focus on while by non-verbal components of my thoughts came to agreement with my conscious, articulated ones.

Planting the hosta worked – sort of. After about one hour of combining compost, topsoil, dirt and newbie plants all of my lingering unease had changed into calm certainty In the process however, some of the infant perennials found their way into the earth with their spindly roots flapping in the air. Mars fortunately noticed the unintentional inversion when she came home from work and I set things upright.

In spite of their rough start and less than ideal growing conditions – very shallow hard soil surrounded by rocks on one side and overly aggressive pachysandra on the other – they have thrived.

I uncovered their flowerbed yesterday as one of the last acts of my annual early March “search for green.” Daffodil leaves had already poked their way through the left over dried leaves that covered them for the winter, so I removed their cover to give them more sunlight. Sedum pods revealed themselves as I crouched and gently raked way their crunchy brown blanket. And the tips of day lilies were beginning to break the surface of their planting mounds when I cut away the strands of dead stalks that lay across them.

Our two other hosta plots showed no signs of life. But that’s not unusual for this time of year. However, in the “mini” bed eight broods of tiny, pale-brown baby-bird-beak-like starters appeared in each of the small hosta nests. At the moment they look lifeless and hopeless but, once again based upon heretofore hosta history, I know they’ll be fine when spring really arrives.
At the trial the next morning our group took a quick check for any second thoughts, and – there being none – told the judge that we were ready to announce our verdict.

When I left the courthouse I was hyperactive with relief. It was a good thing that I had already planted the mini hosta. If I had tried on this day I probably would have spiked the little guys directly into the earth like an exuberant football receiver after catching the game-winning touchdown pass.

I went back to my office to work. Gardening is much too important to me to try it on an adrenaline high.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

I Do What I Have To Do

I spent part of the day yesterday repairing our squirrel-proof feeder. The problem wasn’t that the tree rodents were dining at this supposedly off-limits café. They’ve been doing that with impunity for several months now. In fact it was just the opposite. Because of technical difficulties the food-distributing device had become both “squirrel-proof AND bird-proof” – a hermetically sealed seed silo instead of an “all are welcome” alfresco automat.
A gift from our brother-in-law, the contraption 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 – putting the dining hall into full lockdown.

The feeder actually worked as advertised for just over three months. The squirrels' weight did indeed force the metal shell down so that its decorative barriers covered up the plastic-lined feeding holes on the interior tube. Unfortunately however the polyethylene just above these apertures was now unprotected – permitting the ever-persistent squirrels to gnaw away enough of it to make the food portals larger than their covers, thereby allowing the sunflower seeds to tumble out into the little rodents wide open mouths.

They also chomped away at the base of the tube creating an additional portal on two of the bottom sides, which caused the seed to spew out like a black oily fountain whenever I filled it – which was once a day. (It could have been more often – mid-morning, noon, mid-afternoon, and evening but Mars and I don’t want that much of our retirement savings set aside for critter maintenance.)

The solution was, of course, duct tape. I covered the openings with two layers of the strong cloth-backed waterproof adhesive tape. The bushy tailed gourmands then would take a couple of days to munch their way through the new silver wrapping. Then we would repeat the process. Ultimately the number of layers of tape became too thick, and I would strip it all off and start with a new base. I added thick cardboard thinking the squirrels needed a little fiber. They apparently enjoyed it at least as much as they did the silver tape.

This ritual began in early autumn and continued throughout the winter. The weather being mild and devoid of snow the wild birds that normally frequented our feeders were not around this year. (The few that did show up were able to make do with one or more of our other dining establishments, which in fact are resistant to the gray furry marauders.) Meanwhile the squirrel population increased from four to twelve full-time customers. The birds’ absence, plus the tree-rats tag-team hogging of the “squirrel-proof” feeder, plus my willing collaboration, had made that eating-place pretty much “squirrel-exclusive”.

During this time the two springs that controlled the descent of the outer shell became stretched beyond all usefulness. The cage dropped to the bottom. And all of the openings – man-made and squirrel-made – were sealed tight.

I noticed it that night when I filled the feeder – and not even one errant seed fell out in the process. I decided to ignore it and see how the squirrels would solve the problem. By noon the feeder was still completely filled, and the squirrels were marching around underneath it carrying picket signs and caterwauling.

After some analysis I strategically wrapped a strand of thin wire around the top and secured the outer cage in an open-opening position. Shortly thereafter I noticed a quivering gray pelt hanging down the side of the feeder. About thirty minutes later a male house sparrow stopped by to eat – followed by another. By late afternoon the feeder was one third empty.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery (French Pilot, Writer and Author of 'The Little Prince) said, “There is no growth except in the fulfillment of obligations” This is especially true of the small obligations that we create for ourselves.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

....Cut Once

The older I get
the taller I let weeds grow,
just to be certain.