Cambrian: Slice of Life

How does one squirrel eat so much? I never suspected

A squirrel visits the columnist’s yard last week.
A squirrel visits the columnist’s yard last week. ktanner@thetribunenews.com

Anybody with a bird feeder will tell you squirrels are voracious, pushy, athletic, stubborn, greedy, facile-fingered and messy masters of subterfuge and deception. (More proof? Just ask any rancher or farmer, but be prepared for some stronger language ... along with a recipe for squirrel stew.)

Squirrels can swear vehemently, too, but more about that later.

But mostly, squirrels are sneaky smart.

I learned about squirrelly deviousness on my grandparents’ rambling suburban property in New York. My grandfather was a successful business executive who got his relaxation chops in his greenhouse and his garden. His evening patrols were so precise and complete, we used to tease him about counting each blade of grass every night.

Gramp’s fenced-in garden plot included lots of varieties, but we kids were mostly interested in his warm cherry tomatoes and big, juicy strawberries.

He had enclosed the strawberry bed, covering it with a lift-up screen to protect the plants from birdy raids.

One day, my grandmother saw a squirrel slither between the screen frame and the strawberry box, then stand there holding the screen up on his back. The other squirrels clambered in and gorged on the rodent equivalent of strawberry shortcake. (I do hope one of them fed the bushytailed gatekeeper.)

In another instance, a squirrel was spotted stealing ripe tomatoes. My grandma dashed out, swinging a broom like a household sword. The squirrel scampered up into a nearby tree, looked right at my grandmother and then pitched the tomato at her. Nearly hit her, too.

Oh, yes, I grew up knowing that squirrels are sneaky.

Swearing squirrels? Just imagine one wedged head first into a tube-shaped bird feeder, rapidly filling its tummy and cheeks with seed. Then envision what happened after someone stepped outside to chase the squirrel away.

Alas, the critter and its cheeks were so overfilled, it couldn’t back up. We had an empty feeder tube and a very full squirrel.

The air turned blue with squirrel swear words as the interloper spat seeds in every direction, finally disgorging enough so it could wriggle out of the feeder, and dash off, still swearing mightily.

And now? We met our current squirrel at a bird feeder I’d set on an outdoor table, so we could watch the fun from the kitchen, Zen garden door or dining table.

The next morning, about two-thirds of the seed was gone! Despite feeding frenzies of chattering jays and scolding crows, doves and pigeons, finches and lots of other little birds, having that much seed gone seemed excessive, even for our mixed flock.

I refilled the feeder and then watched it.

Sure enough, soon a squirrel was rummaging around in the seed that accumulates at the bottom of the feeder. He’d seize a handful, stuff it in his mouth, and munch away while he grabbed for some more.

After he’d completely cleared the catch tray, Squirrel stuffed his paws (hands?) up into the feeding hole and pulled down more seed.

When he’d pretty much exhausted the gravity maneuver, he tipped the feeder over, so seed would filter out through the mesh and the feeding holes. Nervy little bugger.

Weeks of frustrations and four different bird-feeder models later, we gave up the fight. We now just spread the seeds on a 14-inch round tray. I simply wasn’t willing to dedicate my life to repeatedly going through those precise feeder-filling maneuvers, only to be outsmarted by a *(&*)(&)^%!! cocky squirrel that barked yappily at me if I didn’t refill the tray fast enough.

But there was a mystery: Day after day, Squirrel was always at the tray, grabbing seeds and stuffing them in his mouth. How could he even walk, let alone scoot back and forth on the roof or jump into the pine trees?

Why wasn’t he waddling? By now, I thought, he should weigh 25 pounds and be prime eagle bait.

Then, early one morning, right after I’d filled the feeder, I saw the answer: We have triplets. Three identical squirrels. And in seven years, they’d never before all showed up at the same time.

I can just imagine them chuckling as they took shifts to make sure we didn’t learn their secret.

Are squirrels entertaining? Yes. Expensive? Well, that’s another matter. But sneaky? Absolutely.

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