What the Forest Animals Tell Me

The squirrels of Columbia County, New York, are incorrigible punks. (Today’s post is, as we say, off-topic.) In most respects this is a lovely place to live, but squirrelwise, it’s like some Bronx tenement project where the young squirrels grow up without fathers, and fall prey early to gangs of juvenile delinquent squirrels. I’ve had a squirrel here face off with me two feet away, and look down his nose at me with as little concern as if I were a june bug. My bird feeder still bears a dent in its metal frame where I took a swat at it with a broom to hit the squirrel that had, milliseconds before impact, been staring at me superciliously as it munched away at the birdseed it had no right to. By the time I registered that I had missed, he was on a branch a foot away, drawing on a tiny cigar and snickering with a blasé air. To frighten these creatures is beyond human skill.

squirrel.jpgA couple of months ago, driving back from North Carolina, I chanced across a garden supply store in Virginia that advertised bird products, and, being in a mood for a break, stopped. Looking through the paraphernalia, my eye was drawn to a running video. On it spun a contraption called the “Yankee Flipper,” advertised as the world’s first squirrel-proof bird feeder: a large, clear plastic cylinder with a green metal ring at the bottom. Birds could perch on the ring and feed peacefully, but the greater weight of a squirrel, pressing the ring, set off a motor that made the ring spin around, casting the squirrel into the empyrean. I was transfixed: the sight of these squirrels being flung into the air made me laugh until tears ran down my face. You can see the video yourself here, and the manufacturer, a concern called Droll Yankees, has a condensed version here. I instantly resolved to buy one, and only flinched for a moment when informed that the cost was $150. The revenge and humiliation I contemplated would have been cheap at ten times the price.

Once home, I hung the Yankee Flipper outside my office window, where I could keep an eye on it. For a month there was no visible activity except legitimate bird feeding. Then one day I heard a momentary whirring sound, and looked out. The Yankee Flipper was swinging, and on the ground was a squirrel squinting up at it with an air of surprise. From that point on, every few hours I would observe a squirrel running up the fencepost parallel to the feeder, staring at it with a look of keen scientific curiosity. After years of getting only smirks of condescension from these scofflaws, it was gratifying to see one absorbed in concentration, truly perplexed and struggling to analyze the mechanics of the dilemma. Finally, a couple of days ago, I had the payoff I’d been waiting for. The squirrel crept down onto the Yankee Flipper from the railing above, lowered himself onto the ring, and clung with all fours as he spun round and round and round for what must have been two dozen revolutions. Losing his grip with one foot after another, he finally spun into the air and crashed on the ground. I laughed until I thought my sides were going to split. The Yankee Flipper had more than paid for itself.

Even as I was laughing, however, a vague disquiet burgeoned in the back of my mind. I was delighted, but not too delighted to notice that as the squirrel was performing his acrobatic feat, his weight made the Yankee Flipper lurch back and forth. With each lurch, a quantity of seed flew out of the seed ports in the cylinder where the birds eat from. Slowly putting two and two together, I looked down, and, sure enough, the squirrel and his fellow hoodlums were busy on the ground harvesting the sunflower seeds, millet, and thistle that had been flung out of the Yankee Flipper. Since then, a repetition of similar feats has confirmed my suspicion: the Fonz of Columbia County squirreldom will voluntarily go for as long a ride as possible, and then he and his cutthroat friends run around feasting on the birdseed. This wasn’t supposed to happen. On Droll Yankee’s videos, no squirrel ever lasts three rounds, but this little savage can cling for more than thirty.

Admittedly, it doesn’t seem like great fun for Da Fonz; upon landing on the ground, he’ll sit stunned for a moment or two, and his head makes a repetitive twitching motion. Nevertheless, his patent pride in having outwitted my expensive mechanism clearly outweighs any inconvenience, and I have been forced to concede defeat. The only way to stop him is going to be to get him for tax evasion, like Al Capone. For now, the neighborhood squirrel gang gets its cut of the birdseed, and what I get in return is an occasional entertainment whose hilarity seems to pale with each new instance. My $150 bought me a lesson: no matter how smart you are, you can’t transcend a local culture that’s been here a lot longer than you have. Or maybe Alpha Squirrel’s teaching me something more helpful: when the system’s set up to defeat you, you can eventually subvert it if you can just hang on long enough.


  1. says

    I think the worst thing about these battles is that it’s humiliating to be locked in an obsessive feud with a rodent. I recently noticed that the bark of two palm trees next to our house was being stripped off by a squirrel. I tried spraying cayenne pepper and water onto the bark, and ruined two spray bottles. Then I bought expensive netting at the hardware store down the street. “How can squirrels win against us?” I asked the store’s owner. “We’re supposed to be smarter than them.” “It’s a matter of time,” he told me. “They spend their entire lives figuring out how to outsmart us. You spend maybe fifteen minutes a day on those palm trees. But for them, it’s their whole lives.”

  2. says

    We solved the problem by renaming the bird feeder the squirrel feeder. We just got it all wrong. Now the squirrels knock enough seed on the ground that the birds gather there to gobble it all up.

  3. Paul H. Muller says

    Here is a story that might help:
    There was a town in upstate NY where the squirrels had infested the three local churches.
    The Presbyterians were convinced that the squirrels were predestined to be there and did nothing, so the squirrels happily remained.
    The Methodist church decided that if they could just minister to the social needs of the squirrels, the squirrels would depart, grateful for the assistance. But of course this failed as the squirrels merely became more comfortable living in the church.
    The only denomination that had any success were the Lutherans. They baptised the squirrels and thereafter the squirrels only appeared in the church at Christmas and Easter.