We live in a squirrel-infested neighborhood. I’m sure that to squirrels, other squirrels have distinctive characteristics, but to me, they’re basically tree rats, and they all look the same. They aren’t, though, as I realized last night when I watched one get into a fight with some robins.
I was peacefully reading a book in the front porch swing when something violent erupted in the maple tree by the porch. It involved hissing, squawking, and barking, and since dogs don’t climb trees, I wondered who was pitching the fit.
It was a squirrel, and it was, I realized, a neighborhood rarity. Most of our squirrels are eastern gray squirrels. They look like this:
If you see a squirrel anywhere on the east coast, there’s a 90 percent chance it’s an eastern gray squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis; do not let the red belly fool you. The first bit of its Latin name means “one who sits in the shadow of his tail,” which he does. What he doesn’t do is bark. Really. Gray squirrels aren’t exactly mute, but if you hear a raging, barking argument, particularly one that goes on for a long time after the initial combatants have flown off, you’re not hearing an Eastern gray squirrel.
What you’re hearing is the Eastern red squirrel, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus, which looks almost exactly like the Eastern gray squirrel, so much so, that even experts hesitate to identify them from a distance. The Eastern red looks like this:
Unlike its gray cousin, however, the Eastern red is a swearer. It’s also territorial, and that’s a bad combination for a peaceful afternoon’s swinging. Not only does it defend its tree against other squirrels, it doesn’t tolerate birds, cats, or even big bugs. It will continue to hurl invective long after the offending trespassers have flown, scrambled down, or been eaten. Just my luck that the tree by the swing has been claimed by one of these loudmouths.
A lot of my squirrel-resentment stems from the days when we tried to feed the birds. What we got was squirrels. They ate like little furry pigs. A squirrel with its mind on its work could go through a feeder-full of sunflower seeds in about 45 minutes, hulls flying everywhere. We would see the cardinals, later, poking disconsolately through the ruins, searching for crumbs. Our blood pressures went up.
We bought “squirrel proof” feeders. One of these used a lever that automatically shut off the flow of seed when something heavy landed on it. The squirrels figured this one out in less time than it took to mount it on the wall. They hung off its roof and scooped the seeds out with their paws, then scuttled down to the deck to gobble the goodies before any stray chickadees could get some. It was infuriating.
The next feeder had a wire cage, with mesh wide enough to admit birds, but too small for squirrels. Not only that, but the mesh was more than a paw’s-length from the seed trays. For a day or two, we had success — lots of happy birds, and some frustrated squirrels. On Day Three, we awoke to find, and I am not making this up — the feeder scattered in pieces all over the deck and part of the yard. The little sods had ripped it apart, eaten every seed, and were mocking us from the hemlock tree.
One of my cousins, who also lives in a squirrel-infested clime, bought a feeder that spins. When a squirrel stepped onto the feeding platform, its weight triggered a motor that spun the platform and, in theory, slung the squirrel off. As entertainment, it was pretty good; as a deterrent . . . these are squirrels we’re talking about. They sold tickets like it was an amusement park ride.
We just gave up. Now the squirrels trot across the back deck like it’s their own personal highway. They make faces at the dog. Every spring, walnut and chestnut trees sprout in my planters because the little twits can’t remember where they buried all their loot. And now, it seems, I’m going to have to spend the summer listening to one of them swearing at the neighbors. Since guns are illegal in the town limits, I’m going to have to invest in earplugs.