Evolution at Work

Jun 2, 2014

There are few things more satisfying than watching squirrels being baffled. It used to happen every day outside my window. They climbed the slippery pole, and tried to work their way around the large metal baffle that blocked their way to the bird feeder.  I felt an ignoble a sense of triumph about defeating such small and brainless creatures, and sometimes I would go out like a fool to scatter a few seeds on the ground as a kind of apology. But things have changed. The squirrels have perfected a kind of wriggling jump that gets them over the baffle and right into my expensive birdseed.

It has taken a couple of years for our resident squirrel families to accomplish this feat. My last attempt to stop them – suspending the feeders from a fifty foot cable stretched between the trees – lasted about the same amount of time. In two generations they learned to walk the high wire, upside down like sloths.

After thirty years of my best efforts to defeat them, these talented rodents are still way ahead of me. In fact, I think we're evolving a new race of super squirrels here, as each generation learns to defeat more and more complicated defenses, rather the way viruses respond to antibiotics. One summer we tried keeping a water pistol on the deck, and shooting the squirrels right off the feeders. They got into the spirit of the thing, and did some splendidly dramatic falls, worthy of Harold Lloyd. You could have sold tickets. But were they discouraged? No.

Squirrels are a big issue on Long Island because more and more people like me are feeding wild birds, which is not a cheap hobby. It used to be just a matter of a few stale breadcrumbs but now, in the birdie boutique, every taste is catered for. There are fifty-seven varieties of birdseed and suet, and feeders in every whimsical style you can imagine. Swiss huts, Tudor lanterns, thatched cottages, lighthouses, wishing wells and strange postmodern structures are all designed to attract the architecturally sophisticated bird. But the snake in this particular Garden of Eden is the squirrel.

A lot of bird feeder manufacturers advertise that they can defeat squirrels, with some combination of wire mesh or drop-down trapdoors, like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. Squirrels, however, figured out these simple devices long ago, and even the owner of our local birdseed store conceded that they were a waste of time. Human ingenuity simply doesn’t reach that far. It is an all-too-familiar kind of arms race, in which one side deploys massive technology at vast expense, and the other side relies on ingenuity, cunning, and patience.

Squirrels are a winning species.

I once tried the squirrel equivalent of humanitarian aid. My plan was to make them too fat to climb the feeders and too well-fed to want to try. I set up little ears of dried corn on cite little perches – like diner banquettes – at strategic points around the garden. The squirrel population skyrocketed, and I found myself buying forty-pound bags of dried corn every week. The squirrels had so much extra energy that they almost learned to fly. The experiment was declared a failure.

We have to accept defeat, and that may be a good thing. If the weapons are thrown away, and everybody gets to eat, it could be a road map to peace in the back yard.

Copyright: David Bouchier