17 April 2004 - 10:06 AM
The Accidental Naturalist
Being a nature lover -- or at least someone who enjoys watching it through her windows -- I set up a bird feeder on our deck when we moved into this house. Just by the corner of the deck, there are two trees, a holly (Ilex opaca) and what I think is a swamp chestnut oak (Quercus michauxii, not to be confused with the rock chestnut oak, Quercus prinus), and it seemed a good place to draw birds. Of course, the feeder drew squirrels as well. I tried adding a dish of cracked corn to occupy them, but the furry beasts preferred the more expensive sunflower seeds.
I was informed that I could discourage the squirrels from the sunflower seeds by mixing a healthy spoonful or two of cayenne pepper into the seeds. According to theory, the heat would offend their tender mammalian mouths, but be inoffensive to the small songbirds which I hoped would be attracted to the feeder. I didn't hold any great hopes for this technique, but figured it was worth a try.
Perhaps cayenne discourages squirrels in Yankee territory. It certainly did nothing to offend the local population, apparently a group of displaced Cajuns. On the contrary, they seemed to be shouting the squirrel equivalent of 'Laissez les bons temps rouler!' as they converged on the sunflower seeds. The Viking (himself a capsaicin-loving col rouge) remarked that the coats on these grey squirrels appeared a little rustier around the shoulders than usual for the species.
I could, of course, have tried other techniques to fight the squirrels, but I knew I was in for a losing battle. One of the neighbours is feeding them peanuts (I find the hulls in my yard), and the wooded area that runs behind the houses on my side of the street is a vast squirrel-breeding stable. There are two dreys (the technical name for squirrel nests) in the oaks behind my house alone, and doubtless plenty of others along the wooded patch. Like Henry Mitchell, 'when I saw their ingenuity, determination, and general invincibility and then considered my own laziness, I saw that I would have squirrels forever and therefore resolved to love them. Things have gone smoothly since.'1
(As an aside, I find squirrel dreys and beaver lodges amusing in the extreme. I imagine families crowded inside on rainy days, munching on acorns or small branches, respectively, as human families might munch popcorn, and playing Go Fish and Parchesi).
As it happened, the squirrels didn't really deter the songbirds, either. The titmice and juncos and chickadees, not to mention the blue jays, cardinals, and nuthatches, and even the occasional red-bellied woodpecker, have all come to call, ignoring the squirrels majestically. As long as the feeder and corn dish are full, there is a steady stream of activity, and the cats are greatly entertained.
This morning, a squirrel was stuffing its face with sunflower seeds, while a starling (a feedhog worse than the squirrels, as it will chase off the smaller birds) sat in the oak tree, screaming. The squirrel was unperturbed. I was pleased. And the cats were greatly entertained.
1'Names from the Garden's Guest Book' One Man's Garden (1992. repr. New York: Mariner, 1999): 4.