Domestic Disturbances: Success at last, sort of

One life’s maddening struggle with the squirrel hordes ends.

After many harrowing years, the squirrels have been kept at bay. —Stacey Rupolo

Davy Crockett and I hunted together many Saturday afternoons when I was a kid. The King of the Wild Frontier and I went after bear. Two or three of them would feed his family in Tennessee for most of a year. He was a stone-cold killer with Ol’ Betsy, that flintlock he carried, but we often found no bears and had to settle for squirrels.

Squirrels did not disappoint or infuriate Davy. He didn’t care that the squirrels got into the grain he kept in his shed for his pigs. He didn’t mind if they chewed a hole into the loft where the children slept and snuggled with the youngsters under their handsewn frontier patchwork quilts in the tiny log house that he’d carved out of the forest. Of course, he didn’t have birdfeeders like I do. The squirrels didn’t drive him nuts the way they do me. He didn’t worry that the family budget for birdfeed and birdfeeders balloons every year, as we keep the avian community around the house fed, trying one newfangled feeder after another, each one guaranteeing that the squirrels will be defeated — and each failing.

I know, Davy had bigger problems. For one thing, he kept losing his seat in Congress, getting it back, then getting tossed out again. The last time, he told the voters they could go to hell, he was going to Texas. Which, given what happened to him at the Alamo, was a hasty, and mortal, decision.

Anyhow, the lucky squirrel or two that got away from Davy and me must have passed along to their teeming progeny word that the kid in the woods with the King was a patsy. Who knew something as small and skittery as a squirrel could breed generation after generation of bullies and pests?

Growing up, I didn’t have a flintlock to hunt with, or a forest full of bear and deer to hunt in. But I had a longbow and arrows, and an upstairs window overlooking the pear tree in the backyard, where the squirrels played. My goal was to knock off a few of the intruders. I’m sure Davy and Ol’ Betsy would have laid waste to the furry monsters, but hitting a squirrel with an arrow requires a marksman with Cupid’s celestial talents. Still, I tried, and I did send an arrow through the neighbor’s bathroom window. It lodged in a family-size container of Ajax the Foaming Cleanser, and cost me a summer’s worth of lawn mowing in reparation.

All grown up and on the Vineyard, Molly and I lived in Chilmark for more than 20 years, and we had birdfeeders in the yard, away from the house near a large granite outcrop, very picturesque seen from the porch outside our bedroom. The squirrels were all over the feeders, but remote as our house was, I made a serious dent in the squirrel population, using a variety of armaments. Also, the skunks and raccoons. Did a little damage also to the ancient oak that stood alone in the vicinity of the squirrel-chickadee battle space, I admit. But on the whole, I held my own against the mob.

We also owned a house in Marion for a little while, but only lived in it part-time, so the squirrels took advantage. They drilled a hole through the eaves and settled in on the second floor, not just one family but a free-love commune of sorts. I had to hire a guy to set up a trap at their private entrance with a one-way door, so that when the family returned from an evening out, it discovered it was denied re-entry, which touched off a hubbub of chittering and tail twitching. The pest control guy, a pest himself, called me at the Vineyard every day to report progress, charging by the minute (10 minutes minimum) for each phoned report, which caused some chittering and tail twitching on my part.

In Vineyard Haven now, we feed the birds from the porch, which is nice because the feeders are only a few feet from the kitchen windows, and we can get a good look without disturbing them or needing binoculars — and Moll can identify the occasional, unusual migrant. We hung a guaranteed squirrel-frustrating feeder from an arched, half-inch-square steel rod that was anchored on the porch railing. The thing had a hinged wooden perch in front of the troughs on each side. The weight of a chickadee or a nuthatch, even a fat finch, would not shift the perch downward, but a squirrel would depress the perch, and a steel flap would rotate down to block the tray where the seed was. It was a nifty deal.

It took the squirrels half an hour to decide they could shinny up the rod and use one of their nasty little hands to reach over to the feeder and draw it toward them, without putting pressure on the perch. Then they gobbled as much as they could and sprang for the porch railing, to take a glass of port and a cigar after their meal.

I turned to carpentry. Found a two-foot 1” by 4”, and pierced it with about 30 three-inch screws, sharp as needles. Like Indian fakirs who disdain the pain and swear they never had a better night’s sleep, my squirrel antagonists tiptoed through the screws and sprang to the rod on their way to their next meals.

I bought a BB pistol, powerful enough to make one of the little bastards jump when I made a lucky shot, but not lethal. I didn’t want to be skulking around the neighborhood at night burying my kills. Success was sadly limited, because in order to get off a shot, I had to open two doors to the porch, and the target was by then racing along the porch railing for the down escalator at the far end. Every shot was made on the run. By that I mean me running and the squirrel running faster.

This is when I took a wrong turn. Instead of waging my private war in private, I sent a picture of the bed of nails to my oldest son, who is himself a rather accomplished finish carpenter. As is the case in this oversharing family of mine, he immediately passed it on to his three sibs. Much hilarity ensued at my expense, although tinged with sympathetic suggestions that while my blooming dementia might be common enough in the experience of old duffers generally, it is exceptional in my case because it is the flowering of a lifelong paranoiac obsession with fluffy-tailed, scampering rodents.

Today, in what is, roughly calculated, the sixth decade of my personal hell, I believe I’ve turned a corner. It’s not victory. There are too many of the enemy, and despite a wife, four children, and five grandchildren, I’ve not been able to recruit a coalition of the willing to join the struggle. So, alone, I believe I’ve reached a plateau, a standoff.

It was expensive. Had to hire carpenters, architects, sail makers, etc. But the result is a gallows-like structure at the outboard edge of the porch. The feeder hangs in the middle of an eight-foot span, about eight feet above the porch. I can raise and lower it with a block and tackle arrangement. Very nautical, which pleases me. The feeder is suspended from a gleaming, one-inch-diameter polished steel curtain rod — very slippery (heh, heh), even impossibly slippery. The rare squirrel that makes it across the pole to the top of the feeder cannot make its way down across the top of the feeder to the motherlode, not without risking a 10-foot fall to the ground. I spend hours each day watching them try, fail, then withdraw defeated. The children have all seen this, the crowning success of a lifelong struggle, but they say nothing.