Are the squirrels getting smarter?
The family dogs all quiver with hatred at the sight of a squirrel. Outdoors, they chase them - always unsuccessfully, which may be why they hate them so. Indoors, the dogs will sit for hours by the window with a view of our bird feeders - staring balefully at the squirrels on the ground, growling softly, and overdosing on floods of adrenaline. We call it watching SquirrelVision. From time to time we let a dog out, but we know the squirrels are safe. None has ever come close. We do it mainly for the amusement of the squirrels.
I don't begrudge the squirrels the sunflower seeds that fall on the ground from the feeder. Squirrels have to live, too. However, a squirrel in or on the feeder itself is a different matter. A squirrel can empty a feeder in short order, scooping out seeds with his front paws, throwing handfuls to his buddies on the ground, then joining them for a leisurely winter picnic.
But (I have boasted for years) not at my bird feeders. I have a system which has kept squirrels on the ground for 20 years. Well, until last week it did.
I string a wire between two trees. The wire is about a hundred feet long and attaches about 15 or 20 feet up in each tree. In a clear area away from the trees, short down-wires suspend cylinder-type feeders about five feet off the ground. Five feet is higher from the ground than a squirrel can jump. Balderdash, you say. A squirrel will just run along the wire from the tree to the feeder. You may add that pie plates or commercial baffles on the wire do not stop squirrels. True, for most kinds of wire. The secret is the green, plastic-coated wire which can be found in most hardware stores. Rope, string, or braided wire (like picture wire) is just a high-ropes course to a squirrel, and baffles are only a temporary challenge. But the narrow, slippery, plastic-coated wire gives the squirrel's claws no purchase, and until last week no squirrel starting from the tree has ever gotten more than two or three feet along the wire before falling off.
I used this squirrel-proofing system for 13 winters in New Hope, Pennsylvania, with only a single failure: one storm dumped 30 inches of snow and closed the roads for three days. The squirrels could then jump the remaining 30 inches up to the feeders. Times were tough for squirrels in that storm, and I let them eat all they could scoop out until the snow settled.
When we moved to the Island, I found the right kind of wire at Ace Hardware in Vineyard Haven. In seven years, no squirrel has reached my feeders here - until last week. I confess that I have been insufferably scornful of friends who complain about squirrels, and instructed them pedantically about the virtues of green wire. I've also sneered at the squirrels.
So imagine my horror when last week I saw a squirrel head-down on the feeder, clinging with his hind feet and scooping out birdseed to his buddies on the ground with his front paws. It was not just my sunflower seeds he was stealing. He was stealing my intellectual superiority. In 20 years and who knows how many generations of squirrels, he was the first to figure out how to do it.
Perhaps, I thought, in seven years the wire had lost some of its slipperiness. I sprayed the wire with WD-40. A few hours later, I looked out to see the squirrel on the feeder again. I was enraged. I threw rocks, unsuccessfully. I had become as ineffectual as the dogs. I considered firearms, electrifying the wire, weapons of mass destruction.
It took two days of watching to catch him in the act and learn how he did it. It turns out that this squirrel is not only smart but also an extraordinary athlete. A thin branch runs out from one anchor tree, parallel to the green wire and three or four feet above it. From the end of the branch, the squirrel cannot jump as far as the feeder, but with a running start, he can land on the wire three or four feet away. Of course he can't stay on top of the slippery wire, but sometimes when it flips him, he can hang on to it upside-down long enough for his momentum to carry him to the down-wire, where he performs a back quarter-somersault so that he is lined up to catch the feeder as he falls. I had to admire his work.
I got out a ladder and cut off the thin branch and also two other branches nearby. I have more at stake than a few sunflower seeds. It's essential that I believe I'm smarter than a squirrel. But I have a bad feeling about this. I'm starting to know how the dogs feel.
Dan Cabot lives in West Tisbury. He is a contributing editor to The Times.