March 6, 2003 (Ira Pilgrim)


The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and musk-rats.

Henry David Thoreau

Several years ago I built a bird and squirrel feeder. It was opposite a five foot picture window. I kept it full of sunflower seeds. At 3 p.m. my wife and I would sit in front of the window with a full glass and some snacks. We watched the wildlife, which consisted mostly of Western Gray Squirrels, Steller's Jays, Black Headed Juncos and Chickadees.

Being a mammal myself, I was most interested in the squirrels since we are more closely related to them than to the birds. Since blood is thicker than water, I tried to study the squirrels, despite the fact that the chickadees seemed to me to be more intelligent. The chickadees weren't afraid of me, which was reasonable since I was no threat to them and I also fed them. I doubt that the squirrels were aware of the fact that I was the one who put the seeds into the feeder. Each squirrel stayed at the feeder until it had eaten its fill or was chased away. A chickadee would grab a sunflower seed in its bill and fly off to a branch, where it held the seed in its feet and pecked it open. The squirrels took a while to get used to the fact that I was no threat when I was behind a window. If there was no glass between them and me, they ran away.

The main problem that I had in studying the squirrels was in identifying individual animals. I tried marking them and accidentally killed one. I decided that it wasn't worth the life of a single squirrel, so I gave that project up. I tried to identify them by other means and I think that I was able to identify half a dozen of them. Most, however, looked the same to me. I am sure that Diane Fossey had an easier time identifying individual gorillas.

I had built the feeder to hold enough sunflower seeds to last for 24 hours. That worked fine for over a year. Then I noticed that our deck was being chewed. That deck was a lot of work and I didn't want it destroyed by squirrels. In accord with what was recommended by the "authorities," my wife painted the deck with a solution of chili pepper. It didn't faze the squirrel, or squirrels, one bit. I decided to stop feeding them. Soon the destruction ceased. Then I started to put a single cup of food in the feeder at about 2 p.m. Some of the squirrels returned, and the chewing of the deck did not resume. I assume that most of the squirrels, including the destructive one, has gone elsewhere.

Among the new visitors was a squirrel that we named Ear. He was easy to identify because his left ear had a flesh-colored tumor which caused the ear to droop. He was so distinctive that there was little possibility of mis-identifying him and he was definitely a male.

Ear photograph

Most of the other squirrels were extremely pugnacious and when one was eating and another came along, it ended either with one squirrel leaving, or them both fighting until one won and the other lost. In contrast to most of the other squirrels, Ear had apparently figured out that there was an easier way to get food than to fight for it. He never fought, but waited for the more pugnacious of his brethren to finish. Then he stepped in and ate his fill. He would occasionally try to bluff another squirrel. If his adversary ran, he took over the feeder. If, as usually happened, the other squirrel stood its ground or charged, he would beat a hasty retreat.

The last time that I saw Ear was in November of 2002. I hope that he has just moved or that his ear had returned to normal. I hope that he is okay. I had gotten fond of him.

I will continue feeding them and watching. I'll report back to you if I find anything interesting in this squirrely world.

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