Friday, February 20, 2015

Squirrel Mercies

I have changed the steps of the dance.

The bird feeder sits on the back deck, in square view of the window over my kitchen sink, as it has for the past twenty-five years or more. The feeder is now cracked and weatherbeaten, as is the deck that it sits on, attached by a brace of wood . And if I'm going to be perfectly honest about it, okay, I admit I've developed a few lines and creaks of my own in that time frame too.

The feeder has a hinged roof, and the simple design contemplates that two panes of plexiglas contain the sunflower seeds that I could pour in from the top every few days, refilling the tank when the level gets low. I have long since abandoned that as an ideal, ever since the neighborhood raccoons discovered that by ripping out the plexiglas they could access the entire cache of seeds at once. Usually in the middle of the night. It would drive the dog--my first dog Muttsie, followed when she passed by Shadow, then by Rocket, then Bandit--absolutely bonkers. In fact the racoons broke one of the two panes, rendering the entire assemblage utterly useless for storing anything but a cup and a half of sunflower seeds at any given time. 

This winter has seemed particularly harsh and brutal, and so I've taken up the duty/challenge/gauntlet of stepping out on to the porch every frigid morning to set out a cup or two of "hulled" sunflower seeds for the birds. I buy this pricey variety of seeds because they comes with the hard black shells removed. It makes an easier meal for a number of birds that wouldn't otherwise come to the feeder. Cardinals and goldfinches can easily crack the whole seeds open with their strong beaks. Nuthatches naturally would have to work at it a little harder. 

And so every morning I am greeted by a mixed flock of hungry birds hanging out on my deck, giving me reproachful stares and impatient glances until I don gloves and boots and a down coat and emerge with the plastic container holding their breakfast. It is a colorful assemblage that settles down to eat between fluttery comings and goings--woodpeckers in black and white, buff and red; white and red-breasted nuthatches; cardinals; chickadees; goldfinches; snowbirds.

Other than a trio of babies that decided to check out the porch one night last summer, I haven't noticed any raccoons making midnight forays lately. Let's face it, the birds clear out the seeds I put out in the morning by lunchtime. However, there is the occasional squirrel...or even two...that stop by. 

I have long been entranced by the comings and goings of squirrels in the forest and on city streets, their chittering backtalk, the grace with which they jump from branch to branch, the way they run up and around a tree trunk like a stream of mercury. That they are intelligent and wily and resourceful there is no doubt. But for years they were scarce in my yard, and entirely absent from the deck. It was simply a matter of environment--when the house and the deck were both new, the forest where they lived was much farther away. Over three decades, however, natural succession has taken root. Small saplings have become trees, shrubs have migrated nearer to the edge of the yard, and the forest drew closer to the house. And so did the squirrels.

When Bandit was still alive, I enjoyed watching him chase them from the feeder and the porch. Bandit was what I sometimes called my "Lazarus dog," a chocolate lab/beagle mix with a bad liver who had come back from the precipice of death more times than I could remember. And despite his age, on his good days he was blazingly fast. And he loved to chase squirrels like greyhounds love to chase mechanical rabbits. 

We evolved a routine over time that relied on a pas de deux of pantomime and whispers. Once I spied a squirrel at the feeder, I'd duck out of sight and whisper "squirrel" in Bandit's direction. He'd spring to his feet and race me to the back hallway so that I could throw the screen door open like the starting gate at Churchill Downs. The squirrel would get a head start, of course, as soon as he heard us bumping around in the narrow hall, all elbows (mine) and wagging tail (his) but that never deterred Bandit from turning on the speed and chasing his prey deep into the woods. He never caught one, but we both appreciated the chase. It made me laugh with delight every time to see how much enthusiasm he brought to the pursuit.

Bandit eventually died, and in his place came Lucky, a wolf-sized border collie mix with even more speed, and a taste for wildlife. Rabbits in particular, but I think he'd eat just about anybody. I have literally wrestled in the snow over a frozen rabbit carcass with this dog, and I only won half the battle.

One day I decided to try out the "chase the squirrel off the porch" routine with Lucky, and he spooked that squirrel so badly that the squirrel ran right past the first couple of big trees with a slavering dog hot on his tail, and eventually found shelter in a third. 

The thought has crossed my mind lately that Lucky might actually catch one. The snow is deep, and his legs are long, far longer than the squirrel's. And I really don't want that to happen. And so I have entirely quit giving my dog notice at all.

And so this morning, as it has several times since winter started, I noticed that there were no more birds on the porch, and that a luxuriously fluffy tail and set of furry, squirrel-sized haunches completely filled up one side of the feeder. I went from window to patio door to get a better view, then back again. My movements must have given me away through the glass, because suddenly the squirrel perched himself at the edge of tray, nose facing toward the forest, one eye on the house. I tiptoed to the back hallway, and opened the back door, then the storm door. "Scoot," I planned to say, but in fact he was way ahead of me.

At the first sound and movement from the doorway, the squirrel launched himself off the porch as though he was parasailing from a cliff. Front paws outstretched, he glided downward a good dozen feet or more, his tail serving as a rudder in the wind. Then he caught solid ground and scampered away in lightning-like bounds toward the woods to the east, leaving pockmarks in the pristine snow cover from the house to the closest maple tree twenty yards away.

Safe at last, I thought with a smile...and then my eye was drawn upward as a red-tailed hawk with a notch in one wing soared into view from the west and began to circle the trees. Within the confines of the forest, I'm pretty sure that my little squirrel visitor will be safe for a while. In the long run, I'm not placing any bets on his future.

But at least, while I'm on duty filling and watching the feeder, I know he'll get a hard-earned meal once in a while. Even if he has to cross a no-man's land of bare, unprotected lawn, and then elbow the woodpeckers and chickadees out of the way. And from now on, at least, I guarantee there won't be a dog on his tail. 

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