From Chicken Soup for the Father & Son Soul

Squirrel Wars

Men are born to succeed, not fail.

Henry David Thoreau

Unaware of the looming danger, oblivious to the war being waged, the new backyard birdfeeder sat majestically on its new pole. Guardrails, metal plates, and inverted saucerlike barriers were guaranteed to prevent all pests, especially squirrels, from pilfering the precious birdfeed. And the pole itself was lubed with so much grease even Spiderman couldn’t get a grip.

We sat in the sunroom and congratulated Dad on his latest accomplishment, his latest anti-squirrel contraption. Surrounded by nine family members spanning three generations, Dad beamed with pride. As one, children and grandchildren oohed and aahed over a steady procession of marvelous mountain birds visiting the new feeder.

When the first squirrel approached, we all crossed our fingers and held our breath. Except Mom. She’d ridden this train before and knew where it was headed. Comfortable in her favorite corner chair, Mom lost herself in her sewing.

Outside the squirrel sized up the situation in all of six seconds, then scurried to the back edge of the backyard. Hope rose in our hearts. Was he giving up?

Mom refused to look.

We knew how clever squirrels could be. We knew they were smart. But we didn’t expect this. Like an Olympic pole-vaulter, the squirrel got a running start, picked up speed, blazed across a large decorative boulder, and jumped toward a nearby Japanese maple. He landed on a branch just the right size to hold his weight while bending slightly. Then, like a diving board, the supple branch launched the squirrel high into the air, over the guardrails, over the metal plates, over the inverted saucerlike barriers, and directly to the top of the birdfeeder. He then flipped over, gripped the underside of the top ledge of the feeder, hung upside down and began eating.

Mom just kept sewing.

Dad’s decades-old battle to keep squirrels out of his birdfeeders has become something of a legend in our family. It began over thirty years ago when we moved to a big house on a small hill in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. The house was (and is) surrounded by tall trees—including pine, oak, poplar, and hickory—as well as azalea, laurel, rhododendron, and other mountain shrubs. To our great delight, we discovered this lush vegetation harbored an incredible variety of beautiful birds. Not a place one would expect to go to war, but then, war sometimes comes unexpectedly.

The first battle began on an innocent spring day when Dad decided to hang a new birdfeeder from the lowest branch of the big oak not far from the back porch. We soon learned the Blue Ridge Mountains also harbor an incredible number of squirrels. Intelligent squirrels. Unscrupulous little buggers who will gladly steal a meal from a feeder rather than forage for one of their own.

I still remember Dad standing on the back porch, hands on his hips, staring in disbelief as a half-dozen squirrels gorged themselves on fresh birdseed. Legend has it one of the squirrels glanced at Dad and winked. Dad’s look of disbelief slowly transformed to anger, coupled with an air of quiet determination. I knew that look. And I knew the squirrels were in trouble.

Dad never took a gun to a squirrel. He was determined to outwit the critters without hurting them. Not an easy task.

If Dad was the general in command of Operation Squirrel, Mom was the chief of staff, watching from a distance and waiting for the right moment to pull the plug and bring the troops home. As eldest son, I served as attaché to the general and liaison to the chief of staff.

Like dressing a child to play in the snow on a frosty winter day, we created layer after layer of birdfeeder protection in a vain attempt to confuse the clever squirrels. First, Dad removed the feeder from the oak branch and hung it from a clothesline strung between two trees. This did not prove much of a challenge for the acrobatic little rodents. With a twinkle in their eyes and snickers on their faces, the smug squirrels easily negotiated the clothesline.

Next, Dad took some old 33-1/3 LPs (vinyl record albums, for those old enough to remember; probably the Dean Martin albums Mom never liked) and strung them on the clothesline on either side of the birdfeeder. The agile squirrels simply jumped the records, landed nimbly on the line, and continued on to the feeder.

For another layer of protection, I helped Dad cut the bottoms off of some plastic, two-liter soft drink bottles (newfangled inventions at the time). We strung the bottomless bottles on the clothesline between the records. Then we joined with the younger recruits (my three siblings) and the chief of staff on the back porch. We all watched in wonder as squirrel after squirrel climbed a tree, walked the clothesline, jumped an album, scurried across a two-liter bottle, jumped another album, and so on until finally finding their reward in a meal of succulent birdseed.

Discouraged but undaunted, the general and I hurried to the hardware store and returned with a tube of grease the size of Fort Dix. We put a thick layer of brown grease on everything: the clothesline, the records, the two-liter bottles. This final layer of protection proved a challenge, but not a defeat, to the amazing squirrels. Some fell to the ground trying to negotiate the greased soft-drink bottles, but quickly got up and tried again. In the end, the squirrels were slowed, but not stopped, as they continued raiding the birdfeeder.

Meanwhile, the anti-squirrel devices had become a hideous eyesore in our otherwise beautiful backyard. No longer amused, Mom began to wonder, “What was the point of attracting pretty birds to a yard containing such an unsightly mess?” Since his contraptions weren’t working anyway, Dad reluctantly took them down and admitted defeat . . . for a time.

Over the next three decades, Dad experimented with a variety of birdfeeders and anti-squirrel devices. Some were store-bought. Some were homemade. None were completely effective. Until recently.

Dad sometimes complained, “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we keep squirrels out of birdfeeders?” Eventually, modern technology did just that, with a new, motorized birdfeeder. This little gem contains a round platform on which a bird can sit while feeding, but the weight of a squirrel will activate a motor, turn the platform, and spin the squirrel to the ground.

Victory at last!

And yet, victory is not always what you think. On a recent trip home for New Year’s Day, I was surprised to find Dad sliding open the sunroom door and tossing peanuts to the squirrels.

“What’s up with this?” I asked.

Dad got a sheepish look on his face. “Keeps the squirrels out of the feeders.”

I nodded skeptically. “Uh-huh. And?”

He shrugged. “And it’s winter. It’s twenty degrees out. Squirrels have to eat, too.”

I laughed. “Gone soft in your old age, have you, general?”

He ignored me and threw another handful of peanuts toward a pair of squirrels. I glanced at Mom. She just smiled and continued with her needlepoint.

Over the next twenty minutes, Dad and I ate half a bag of peanuts and fed the other half to squirrels, chipmunks, and other hard-luck cases. I couldn’t believe I was actually feeding the squirrels. And yet as I thought about it, I realized that’s the warrior’s way. Once an enemy is defeated, you treat him with compassion and respect.

The general is now retired. He still enjoys an occasional skirmish with the squirrels, but for the most part, the truce remains intact. Still, I have moments when I can’t help but long for the days of old, when the squirrels were undefeated, soft drinks were sold in glass bottles, and music was still played on 33-1/3 LPs.

Carl Dennison

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