Let’s get right to it: if you live here in the north country, there’s a good chance you feed birds. It’s a pleasant winter pastime, a way for us humans to interact with some of Mother Nature’s other kids, in this case the ones with feathers.
Feeding the birds, especially in the winter, is a satisfying two-way street. In exchange for a bit of cash outlay for feeders and suet and seeds, we lumbering two-leggeds are treated to ongoing displays of aerial artistry and amazing examples of cold-weather courage. Black-capped chickadees, weighing in at one third of an ounce apiece, somehow manage to zip around vigorously when the mercury huddles in a shivering ball at the bottom of your outdoor thermometer at 30 or 40 below. Woodpeckers, the downys and the hairys and the beautiful red-bellieds, together with their giant cousins the pileateds, chip off meals at the suet feeder with nary a care. Upside-down nuthatches comb the feeders for whatever’s available, and now and then a gang of blue jays swoop in to grab a snack.
And then there are the squirrels.
In a column some years ago I wrote, “Anyone who has a winter bird feeder can understand the problem with our national welfare system. You put out bird seed for the needy little chickadee—and along come the squirrels…” Which, on the face of it, may sound extreme, for surely there are thousands if not millions of hungry humans who deserve and would benefit from food that a caring society would share with them.
But somehow, with squirrels, it seems different.
Maybe it’s because we know nature equips squirrels to provide for winter months by hiding away nuts in the fall. Maybe at some level we’re wondering why, if they’ve already squirreled away cold-weather goodies, do they feel entitled to steal from the less fortunate creatures with feathers? Or maybe we’re just being skinflinty, and dislike having to buy more seeds and suet than we’d otherwise have to.
However you slice it, there’s something I find irksome about feeding squirrels, and I know I’m not alone. I know plenty of fellow northlanders who have confessed to (or even bragged about) plinking away at the furry rodents with BB or pellet guns, or blasting away with shotguns. Several more have captured squirrels via live traps and exported them to places miles away. And others, carrying on an old pioneer tradition, eat them for supper.
But, you say, why not avoid the problem in the first place? Why not stop putting out feed, or somehow prevent the squirrels from reaching it? To which I can only agree, at least in theory.
Once you stop providing food, the problem is, in fact, solved, which is what my wife and I do every spring once the bears awake from hibernation and are apt to come looking for lunch.
As to the other notion—devising a squirrel-proof feeder—the jury’s still out. It’s true that feeders can be stationed high up or far out on a wire, and pulled down or in for refilling. We recently bought a Squirrel-Buster feeder which seems to be about 90 percent effective. But rodents, I’ve found, have a way of figuring things out. This winter, for the first time ever, one of them began extracting suet from our suet feeder—and thus far we’ve been unable to stop the little varmint.
Maybe the only good solution is to seek enlightenment and to admit that all creatures have a right to live.
But who says it’s my job to feed them?