|Unlike most avid winter wildlife feeders, I enjoy seeing squirrels show up at dawn each day for their share of the free bounty. For many years I tried in vain to repel them or at least stymie their destructive attacks on my back yard feeders, but when the solution came down to buying $50 “squirrel-proof” feeders I decided to take another look at the situation. I actually like squirrels, enjoy watching them and find their company to be rather enjoyable on a cold, winter day when nothing else is going on. Plus, I’ve been an avid squirrel hunter for over 50 years, and have made many a great Brunswick stew out of the big grays and fox squirrels I’ve taken all over the country. A good squirrel stew is hard to beat on a cold winter’s day, but despite my many years in the South I was never moved to try squirrel brains and scrambled eggs, which is considered to be a delicacy below the Mason-Dixon Line. Folks protested mightily when one Southern state proposed a moratorium on eating squirrel brains due to high levels of harmful chemicals, no doubt delivered by acid rain and deposited in the leaves and nuts of the squirrels’ favorite trees oaks and hickories.
Anyway, I’m a fan of squirrels year-round and enjoy them any way I can in the yard, in the trees and in a bowl of stew. Plus, after many years of combatting their destructive ways, I discovered that it’s easier to just put seed on the ground and let them have their fill. Turns out that squirrels don’t eat any more seeds than the average flock of chickadees or nuthatches. The difference over a winter might be half a bag of sunflower seed or cracked corn much less than the average new squirrel-proof feeder would cost.
I’m fortunate in that I have both red and gray squirrels in my woods, which gives me a chance to see how these two similar yet different critters get along. From what I can see out my office window, theirs is a relationship based on tolerance mixed with distrust. Often times, I’ll see reds and grays feeding side by side but a respectful distance apart. All players seem to get along well until one of them decides to invade another’s space, at which point they all run around chasing each other, protesting and bullying, till things settle down and they go back to feeding again. It’s interesting to see how possessive and greedy these animals can be even when sitting atop a pile of sunflower seed that’s more than any of them and eat or carry away. It must be mammalian nature to want to own and keep everything for oneself once sees such behavior right up the evolutionary ladder. Why anyone, squirrel or human, would want more of what it already has too much of is something to ponder, but they do it and so do we. Easy to observe, difficult to explain!
What’s most interesting about “my” squirrels is that while the bigger grays continually bully the smaller reds subtly but persistently, there comes a time when the quicker reds decide they’ve had enough of being shouldered out of the way and go on the attack. Though I’m sure they are deadly serious, it’s amusing to watch the lightning-fast reds go after the fatter, slower grays and drive them back into the woods. In and out, round and round they’ll go, never really fighting but always threatening and posturing. It’s been said that the reds have the more aggressive attitude and will go as far as castrating the larger grays, but that’s likely a rumor started by imaginative human observers. I’ve been watching squirrels year-round for more than half a century and have never seen a serious, rolling-in-the-mud fight between any two squirrels, red, gray or otherwise. They chase, they scold, they bully and pursue but “fight?” That’s more common among mammals much higher on the food chain.
Not all of the squirrels of either species participate in these sunflower wars; in fact, the same individuals seem to be the ones who can’t get along or must assert their dominance. All will scurry away if danger threatens, but during a routine bully battle the rest of the crowd will ignore the goings-on and keep right on nibbling. It may be that the younger squirrels are the fighters while the older adults choose to stay out of it (as is the case with most species), but I’d have to trap, tag and sort through the entire population of squirrels in order to determine such things. I’ll leave that kind of research to the younger scientists; I’m content to sip my tea and consider the dynamics of the back yard squirrel hierarchy from the comfort of my Cracker Barrel rocker.
I have found that if I dump a bucket of seed on the ground in one great pile the birds and animals seem to fight over it more often. But, when I put out lines of seed about 3 feet apart the species separate themselves and all is harmony and bliss. One line will keep the turkeys happy; next to them will be my home flock of blue jays, beside them a group of squirrels. Sharing the wealth seems to be acceptable to all as long as someone else monitors and maintains the distribution of wealth. Give them free reign and there’s nothing but trouble.
Every day I see more evidence that our wild neighbors are not much different from us. The comparisons are stunning; the similarities are impossible to miss. The gamut of human traits is evident in every bird or animal that shows up to take its share of the provender. Like us, they are happiest when they are alone at the feeder, free to make their own decisions without the need to compete with interlopers. It’s apparent that progress will always be made but it’s obvious that some things will never change.
I’d better get out there and refill the feeders before someone starts a sunflower riot!