Thursday, March 5, 2009
I'm not sure why my mom hates squirrels, but I think it started with popcorn.
In an age before coaxial cable wired HBO and Showtime directly into televisions across the United Sates, the first VCRs found their way into suburban living rooms when I was in elementary school. Prior to the VCR, if you wanted to watch a movie you were forced to either see it in the theater or wait ten years until a highly edited version was shown on one of the three network channels your family’s television was able to tune-in. The houses of my childhood looked like giant bricked insects with aluminum antenna mounted on their backs. TV Guide was much thinner.
The idea of preserving video on cassette tape revolutionized the free time of an already television addicted generation. The new VCR recorded our favorite shows and gave children the freedom to go to the bathroom sometime other than during commercial breaks. It allowed us to pause, rewind, and skip the boring parts of programs we taped while we watched the Cosbys settle this week’s crisis or the Miami Vice keep Florida crime free. The VCR helped us memorize favorite jokes and imitate the characters who were live on Saturday night. It let us watch any movie any time we wanted to. It did for cinema what reruns had already done for television. It gave us a second chance.
I’m convinced that both the newly invented VCR and its accomplice, the video rental store, were also ultimately responsible for the great squirrel invasion of 1986.
One particularly warm summer night my parents piled my sister and I into the family station wagon and drove us to the new local video store to see what blockbusters it might offer as entertainment for the evening. As always, the choices were so overwhelming that Kathy and I argued over what we would watch. I wanted to rent an action move. She wanted a drama. I wanted to laugh. She wanted to cry. It wasn’t until we remembered that a boy named Ferris Bueller had recently narrated an entire movie about how to take the perfect day off that we reached a compromise: I would rent the movie about the kid who knew karate, my sister would watch Molly Ringwald blow out her sixteen candles, and we would both enjoy learning from Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane the fine art of skipping school.
After a night of watching movies and popping popcorn, Kathy and I were cleaning the living room when my mom noticed a few handfuls of popcorn left in the bottom of the bowl. Before we could put the uneaten corn in the trash she said, “instead of throwing that popcorn out, you guys should toss it in the backyard for the birds to eat. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
At the time, the idea of throwing leftover food in the backyard for birds to eat seemed both indecent and exotic. My family usually put its leftovers either in Tupperware or in the trash. We never threw them in the yard. But since Jesus didn’t seem to get too upset when his five thousand friends left a bit of stale bread littering a rural hillside, we decided that tossing a few kernels of popcorn in the backyard might not be such a bad idea after all.
Feeding the birds with our table scraps quickly became a game for my sister and I. For several weeks after the first popcorn feeding, when my mom baked biscuits or made cornbread for dinner, Kathy and I fought for who would win the right to crumble and scatter the uneaten bread across the yard. Although the project was really less about feeding hungry animals than it was about making our backyard look cheerful and charitable, the birds loved our homemade treats, and we were convinced they loved us for providing them. Our backyard soon became a bird buffet with loyal customers ranging from blue jays and cardinals to robins and redbirds.
We eventually graduated from feeding the birds discarded popcorn and biscuits to using an actual birdfeeder. Our first one looked like a little pine house on a pole. Its clear plexiglass sides let potential diners see what kind of seed we were serving for dinner, and we soon found the birds were just as happy with convenience food as they had been with home cooking.
The cardinals enjoyed a diet rich in sunflower seeds while the doves and finches ate lots of wheat. Thistle seed was a favorite of the goldfinches. The mockingbirds, blue birds, robins, and woodpeckers enjoyed dried fruit in the feeder. For the sparrows, we bought lots of millet. When you consider their diet, it’s really not surprising that birds have become infamous for giving a sh** where others dare not.
Although our intent had always been to feed the birds, squirrels apparently enjoy bird seed as much as birds do. And since birds tend to be fairly messy eaters, they usually supplied the squirrels in our yard with a fairly constant rain of castoff sunflower seeds and millet to supplement the thousands of acorns already littering our yard.
I would like to think that that most creatures who can’t enjoy the luxury of large franchised supermarkets would be content with free food raining from the sky. Our squirrels, however, were smart enough to understand that the shower of seed raining from above was coming from somewhere other than heaven, and they wanted to know where that somewhere was. When the first squirrel championed an expedition up the birdfeeder pole and found a small wooden house full of food at its summit, he knew his days of foraging and hoarding were over.
In the frenzied seconds that followed, the air in our backyard grew thick with fur and flying seed. Until I witnessed the squirrel’s appalling table manners, I never imagined that animals could binge eat. It was a Jenny Craig nightmare. In less than a minute, a single squirrel emptied our entire birdfeeder of its contents. While some of the seed must have found its way into the squirrel’s small mouth, most of it flew like Cookie Monster crumbs across the yard and was quickly collected by the squirrel’s waiting (and grateful) friends.
My mother was mortified. After months of enabling the birds with a steady diet of ever-available seed, she was convinced they would no longer be able to survive in the worm-eating world. Thanks to the selfish squirrels, she said, our backyard birds were going to bed hungry.
And so began our quest to protect the birds and keep the squirrels out of our birdfeeder.
Our first anti-squirrel experiment involved a cone that was attached midway up the birdfeeder pole with its open side down. The cone made our birdfeeder look like a skinny one-legged girl wearing an aluminum dress. In theory, the hungry squirrels would climb half-way up the pole, reach a dead end, turn around, and give up. Unfortunately, our squirrels either didn’t think the birdfeeder’s new outfit made it look like an underfed supermodel, or they were terribly immodest. Not only did the squirrels continue to climb up the birdfeeder’s one long leg, but they also found a way past her shiny aluminum skirt and into her feed box, where they eagerly scattered their seed.
Who could blame us for our outrage?
Because, as natural climbers, the squirrels would always find a way up the birdfeeder pole, the next logical solution was to eliminate the pole altogether. If the birdfeeder could somehow be suspended in midair, the squirrels would be forced to wait for evolution to grant them the gift of flight before they could steal our seed. And since evolution is notoriously slow, hanging the birdfeeder above the ground seemed like a marvelous idea.
After three trips up a stepladder, a tightrope of clothesline cord was strung between two trees with the birdfeeder dangling from its middle. Unwilling to wait for wings, however, the squirrels decided to attack from the trees. Two hours after we hung the birdfeeder, a squadron of squirrels dove from the branches, landing on the birdfeeder’s roof and swinging it until every seed had been thrown from its hold. The troops waiting below devoured the seed in moments, eating it off the ground and picking crumbs from each other’s fur.
Until that spring, I never considered that birdseed is actual seed, but it is. And like all seed, it grows. April showers usually bring May flowers, but by June our yard grew more than daisies and tulips. Thanks to the squirrels and their seed scattering, the spring rain of 1986 transformed our backyard into a half acre of suburban farmland.
While our neighbors’ yards grew dandelions, ours sprouted sunflowers. While other neighborhood dads tried to keep their crab grass under control, mine fought a backyard full of summer wheat. And as the squirrels continued to sow their seed, I became increasingly aware that I had somehow transitioned from mowing the yard every Saturday to harvesting it.
My Uncle Frankie, the Peter Pan of our clan, devised a plan to eliminate our squirrel problem that involved a five gallon tub of Crisco and a pair of latex gloves.
Although we should have known better than to play along with whatever Neverland game my uncle’s imagination had invented, we didn’t. Instead, we followed Uncle Frankie’s advice and smeared handfuls of shortening along the length of our birdfeeder pole.
Uncle Frankie claimed that this homemade slippery pole would make it impossible for squirrels to climb all the way to the birdfeeder above. They might make it half-way, but the combined forces of gravity and whipped vegetable fat would ensure the birdseed’s safety. He personally guaranteed that the Crisco pole could be conquered by not even the most persistent squirrel. Climbing it would be impossible, like climbing a stick of butter.
Uncle Frankie was right. The Crisco pole was an unparalleled success and as entertaining as it was effective. A few ambitious squirrels made impressive attempts at climbing the greased pole, but after four lubricated feet their exhausted arms lost their grip and they inevitably slid slowly back down like small, greasy firemen.
(The whole scene was reminiscent of that torturous day in jr. high gym class when the girls were moved to one end of the gym to play kick-ball while the guys were herded to the opposite corner and told to climb a giant rope hanging from the rafters. For some unknown reason, gym teachers always wanted us to climb the rope, as if this was a life-skill that boys were required to master before adulthood. Didn’t our gym teachers understand that most modern buildings are equipped with both stairs and elevators? Unless your career goals include becoming a pirate, I could never think of a single job that would require a grown man to climb a rope on his way to the office. And yet, they still made us climb.)
After several unsuccessful hours trying to pillage the birdfeeder, the poor squirrels sat at the bottom of the pole, spent and frustrated, licking the Crisco off their paws. Since squirrels generally survive on nuts, berries and the occasional high fiber-bug, their small bodies aren’t accustomed to an un-cut Crisco diet. And so, thanks to both my Uncle Frankie’s brilliant plan and my family’s blind obedience, our yard was quickly filled with the fattest squirrels ever seen in the wild.
At the end of a long day of pole climbing, when the greasy squirrels finally summoned enough energy to drag themselves back home, tree branches creaked and groaned under their pot-bellied weight. The summer was particularly harsh as several of the cat-sized squirrels baked to a golden greasy brown in the hot August sun.
More than two decades have passed since the great squirrel invasion of 1986, and its final moments have been lost to memory. All we know for sure is that what began with the Hansel-and-Gretel-like innocence of children dropping crumbs in their backyard quickly degenerated into a Crisco-covered mess.
Family lore doesn’t record who finally won the battle or how. But as we laugh over the story during countless Thanksgiving dinners, my mother continues to defend her actions. She says she simply hoped that if we put the food just out of the squirrels’ reach for long enough, maybe they’d get frustrated – maybe they’d give up and go away.
Not long after our backyard conflict was resolved, a more significant family battle began that eventually caused my parents to divorce each other and re-marry other people. When I was a senior in high-school my mom met and married a wonderful man named Bob and together they moved into a home that wasn’t haunted with memories of slippery squirrels and starving birds. The hummingbird feeders that now hang in their kitchen window are filled with sugar water. While these feeders attract the occasional winged insect, they are never fought over by anything larger than a bumble-bee.
Unfortunately, at her new house my mom is now doing battle with another rodent foe. A family of chipmunks has invaded the yard and is threatening my mother’s sanity. She and Bob have approached this new challenge with very different strategies. Bob is a kind and gentle man who has attempted to re-habilitate the chipmunks in an unsuccessful catch-and-release program. My mother prefers a more aggressive approach. She wants to adopt a hungry cat.
My Uncle Frankie has a brilliant solution to the chipmunk problem that involves steel wool and peanut butter, but we don’t listen to him much anymore.