Essay : Guilty pleasure
The clear call of a goldfinch draws me back to the feeder hanging over the old lilac bush by our kitchen porch. Just days ago he was a dusty yellow, shaking off his winter coat of olive green. Now, despite the wind and the cold, he is as bright as the forsythia and those few brave daffodils daring to open in the yard. I pause, pull a chair next to the glass storm door, and settle into a pool of sun. For the next few minutes, I'll watch the birds come and go.
This is my guilty pleasure, but birds aren't the only animals drawn to the sunflower seeds I put out each morning. Squirrels steal a meal when they can and unseen by me, so do rats. They are snugly burrowed in the roots of the lilac under a thick layer of fallen seed. The rats apparently attract skunks that like to feed on their babies. This is where our problem began.
On a rainy March night, my husband and I came home from dinner with friends to an overwhelming odor of skunk. We're used to our dogs being sprayed. I even suggested it was an early sign of spring, but the dogs smelled fine. The stink was seeping up the heating vent from the basement. A stamp of my foot on the wooden floor brought another tangy barrage of stink and an outpouring of squealing. There was more than one skunk, and they were not budging. We borrowed a Have-a-Heart trap and set it in the middle of the basement. Each night we'd wake up with our eyes stinging, but when we checked the trap each morning the peanut butter cracker was untouched and the trap remained empty. Tempers flared. The laundry piled up because no one wanted to go down to the basement and wash it. The skunks were clearly bolder than we were. Finally we wised up and called the skunk catcher.
The skunk catcher shook his head when he saw the full bird feeder so close to the house. He pointed out the established rat colony it supported. His trained eye quickly identified many well worn skunk paths in our yard and several places where they entered and exited the basement. While he set up his arsenal of traps, I slipped inside and hid the 30-pound bag of sunflower seeds I'd just bought. There was no reason to draw attention to it. I knew who was responsible for our problem.
For the next week or so, the skunk catcher came each morning early and reset the traps each evening. Gradually the spraying and squabbling diminished and finally ceased. By the time he took the last trap away, he'd captured 10 skunks. The basement was empty. Finally the piles of laundry could be done and the holes could be plugged to prevent the skunks from coming back. Our son, Sam, and his friend, Danny, scrunched into the crawl spaces and filled each hole with cement. It was messy, difficult work, and it took two full days of their hard work. Add it all up, and my guilty pleasure had turned into a very expensive treat, a luxury really. This family will not be taking a vacation this year.
As I write, I hear the chatter of a pair of chickadees and the soft click of stray sunflower seeds hitting the wooden deck. I don't have to look to picture their black and white bodies bounce from branch to branch as they make their way across the lilac bush to the feeder. It's silent now. The grey squirrel must have made her way over the stone wall, crossed the smudge of greening lawn, and jumped from porch step to railing to feeder. The clatter of seeds is denser now and the birds are quiet. If I go to look, she'll be hanging face down, sleek and triumphant, wrapped around the feeder and gorging herself. I rise and let our two old retrievers out the kitchen door. There is an explosion of barking, and as usual the squirrel dashes over the wall.