by Whit Gibbons

November 8, 2015

We need not travel to tropical jungles, river swamps or old-growth hardwood forests to have memorable wildlife experiences. Backyards, vacant lots and city parks often provide suitable adventures. Among the more accommodating animals in terms of giving us something to talk about are gray squirrels.

Soon after the first person decided to put seeds out to attract birds, squirrels became a topic of conversation. The first question was "how do I keep squirrels from eating the birdseed?"

The number of squirrel-proof bird feeders that have been invented is almost exactly the same as the number of squirrel-proof bird feeders that squirrels have learned how to raid.

With no hint of possessing a brain bigger than a peanut, gray squirrels have the agility and dexterity to assure that they will eventually outsmart any bird feeder no matter how cleverly designed.

One surefire solution I have heard for keeping squirrels away from a bird feeder is to "hire a man with a shotgun to sit nearby in a chair." Another approach is to accept that you are attracting "wildlife," not just birds, and plan to enjoy whatever shows up.

Our discussions about squirrels in the backyard lately have taken on a different tenor and been fairly limited. One question is "where have all the squirrels gone?" Another is "have you seen the squirrel today?" because we apparently only have one left.

Last year I once counted 19 gray squirrels on our back deck railings that I had lined with sunflower seeds for the birds. I had been doing this seed spreading ritual for weeks. Squirrels had gradually begun to encroach on the scene.

Once the squirrel horde arrived in the morning, the area soon looked like they had brought vacuum cleaners. We never again had 19 squirrels at a time on the porch, but a dozen or more were often visible here and there in the yard and in the trees, and of course, dangling from bird feeders.

Then one day we became aware that several cardinals, doves, titmice and other seed-eating birds were at the bird feeders. But squirrels were absent. The same thing happened the next day and the next. No squirrels. Finally we noticed a single squirrel in a large maple tree, but it did not come to the feeder.

About that time a neighbor asked me where the squirrels had gone. She likewise fed squirrels, had had high numbers and then suddenly realized that only a couple were left. I had no idea at first. I now think I have discovered the answer.

I was sitting on my back porch listening to birds calling and checking out the well-attended bird feeders. I was vaguely aware of thrashers, towhees and catbirds flitting here and there on the ground where I had pitched some meal worms.

I saw the squirrel on a limb of the maple tree. Then I sensed a change. Birds unobtrusively disappeared and the woods became quiet. The mystery was solved moments later as an enormous red-tailed hawk (they are always enormous when only 20 feet away) glided across the backyard from our neighbor's at eye level and skied upward to perch in a tall hickory tree. The squirrel had joined the birds in the disappearing act. Nothing moved in the yard or trees.

My hypothetical scenario is that I had fed the squirrels so well for months that their numbers increased to an overabundance in a relatively small area.

During the early fall migration of raptors, including red-tailed hawks, at least one had stopped over in our backyard and been favorably impressed by the smorgasbord of gray squirrels. Why leave while the pickings were good? You can figure out the rest of the story that led to a dwindling number of squirrels.

Clearly a simple solution is available for anyone who is fed up with squirrels raiding their bird feeders. Attract a red-tailed hawk to your backyard. It won't need a shotgun.

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