March 20, 2017 by Gregory Josephs
The Irrational Fear of Radical Rodent Terrorists
Not every squirrel is out to destroy the world. This came as a surprise to me—an epiphany if you will—while I was working so hard to Make Bird Feeders Great Again. I guess I’d better explain. . .
I’ve got this bird feeder—a nice glass tube with some metal perches and a plastic tray—that hangs from a rod off the second story porch of my condo. It was a Christmas gift from my parents in 2015, and when my husband and I unwrapped it, we were surprised and delighted. As new homeowners, we loved the idea of the feeder. How adult! It ranked up there with things like wind chimes and window boxes as something homeowners had. Plus, we love animals, so it really was a perfect gift. My only concern was. . .
See, talk to almost anyone who has a bird feeder and they’ll tell you squirrels are a real menace. They’ll swoop in from foreign yards, totally decimate your sunflower seeds, and ruin everything your bird feeder stands for. In short, squirrels are radical rodent terrorists, and they should be kept away from your seeds and out of your feeder at all costs.
This is what society taught me to believe.
Well, at first it was a real honeymoon. We got the feeder up in January of 2016, and within two weeks we were supporting a healthy population of birds. There were finches, sparrows, chickadees, nuthatches, tufted titmice, cardinals and mourning doves. Best of all? Not a squirrel in sight. I couldn’t blame them; the feeder hung four feet off the porch, and at least twenty feet off the ground in the open air. Not a very inviting environment for squirrels, who prefer the safety and comfort of tree branches (or so I was told).
Then one day in March of 2016, it happened. I poured a cup of coffee, sat down by the kitchen window, and looked out just as a squirrel appeared on the porch railing. At first I was too frightened to react, but my fear grew to incredulity as the little rodent crawled boldly out across the metal rod and then down onto the feeder. As it sat in the plastic tray and began to pull seeds out with its grubby little paws, I grew incensed! The nerve of the little beast! Who did it think it was, coming to my feeder like this, uninvited?
I left my coffee and stormed out onto the porch. “Hey!” I shouted. “Get out of here and go back where you came from!” The squirrel panicked, leaped back to the porch railing and froze. It stood there for a moment looking at me, unsure where to go next. “Get going!” I yelled. “You’re not welcome here!”
Then something unexpected happened that gave me pause for a moment. The little guy raised one paw to its chest and gave me the saddest look a squirrel could possibly give. It was such a human gesture, as if to say who me? For just a second I almost felt some compassion. But then I yelled again and it ran away, down off the porch and into the trees beyond.
My husband and I immediately took action to prevent this encounter from ever happening again. You have to understand, we didn’t know any better. We were just trying to Make Feeders Great Again. Squirrels were bad news, and we couldn’t just stand by and let them flood into our yard.
Turns out there were a lot of resources at our disposal, because there is an entire anti-squirrel industry out there! First we tried the baffle—a dome-shaped covering that was supposed to prevent the squirrel from climbing down off the rod onto the bird feeder. That didn’t work. The little guy returned a few days later, discovered the baffle, and simply leaped from the porch railing onto the feeder tray. The whole feeder swung violently upon the squirrel’s landing, and I was sure it was going to slip off and fall to its death. Instead it held on tight, ate its fill of our seeds, and then leaped back to the porch when it was done.
Next we tried taking the plastic tray off. All that managed to do was piss off the birds. Meanwhile the squirrel found a way to hang upside down from the metal perches and continue to gorge.
Finally, drastic times called for drastic measures! We switched out the black oil sunflower seeds we’d always used for pearly-white safflower seeds. Squirrels hate safflower seeds and would rather go hungry than eat them, and the seeds we chose promised specifically to block rodents from six squirrel-majority trees.
It worked! Our little squirrel took one bite, was disgusted, and stopped coming around. The only problem is, restricting the squirrel meant we ended up restricting a lot of the birds too. The finches stopped coming around, then the nuthatches and chickadees left too. Eventually, the only birds left were cardinals and mourning doves. I like these well enough, but. . .
Thats not really what our bird feeder stands for. We put up our feeder to be a shining beacon—a place any bird, no matter how humble, could come and make a meal for himself. It was meant to be a place of opportunity—somewhere the seed was limitless. There was supposed to be beauty in the diversity—birds of every feather eating together and making our back yard a better place for all.
But something happened; an unfounded terror eclipsed me. I feared the squirrels I did not know—feared they’d take more than their share and leave nothing for the birds I wished to see. In the end I was sort of right. In attempting to deter the squirrels I am the one who drove the birds away. I was so blinded trying to Make Feeders Great Again I failed to see that my Feeder was Already Great!
Maybe squirrels were a part of that. After all, who was I to judge? Sure, they don’t have feathers, but they are animals just the same. They have beating hearts, and hopes and fears, just like the birds. They have a need to eat—to feel safe and welcomed and even loved. Perhaps I imagined my feeder as being just for the birds, but what if the squirrels were fleeing from something? What if they were coming to my feeder to escape a harsher life in a distant tree? How could I begrudge them an opportunity for a better future?
And really, squirrels are awfully cute. The way they look might seem funny to some people, but there is beauty in diversity.
We dumped the safflower seeds and returned to the black oil sunflowers. Our feeder was open to the whole back yard again, and in no time, it was thriving. Sure my little “who me?” buddy and friends come around every few days, but I’ve come to love them as much as the tufted titmice. They bring diversity to my feeder and remind me that the more open we allow our world to be, the richer our lives become.
If there is a moral to this story, its something like this: There will always be a few rabid squirrels out there, or squirrels that make nests in your attic, or make themselves a nuisance in some other way. But to judge an entire species on the actions of a few, or on the baseless words of others? We are making assumptions that hurt us all. Birds can be pretty bad too. Ever try to have a picnic at the beach when there are hungry seagulls around? Case in point.
Today my bird feeder hangs boldly, and silently proclaims:
“Give me your feathered, your furry, your huddled masses yearning to eat free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming branches.
Send these, the seedless, wind-tossed to me,
I lift my seeds beside the porch door!”
A big thanks to my husband for taking the shot I used as the featured image for this post. If you want to see more of his work, it can be found here.
And if you’re looking for a bird feeder to call your own, I recommend any of these from Wild Birds Unlimited.
As always, I welcome your thoughts in the comments below. And if you liked this post, perhaps consider sharing it with the nifty social media buttons (also below). Thanks for reading and have a great, inclusive day.