NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — If You Can’t Beat ‘Em …

We give up. After 30 years spent trying to thwart bushy-tailed tree rats, we accept that squirrels are the master race. All hail!

They’ve beaten us. They’ve foiled every attempt to preserve our backyard snacks for our wild bird buddies. The wily tree-leaping rodents have out-thought, outfought, outpersisted and outsmarted these humans who stock groceries on the deck.

True squirrel confessions: Early, early in the morning, I listen for the snickety tap of their tiny, sure feet running through the eavestroughs and popping up onto the roof. I strain to hear the eerie strum of their claws as they pluck the screens on the porch like an unearthly harp, scrambling both sideways and vertically as quick as a bunny on the level straightaway. I greet dawn to the sound, not of lilting birdsong, but the hyperactive chatter of our resident troupe of squabbling red squirrels, cheering or cursing each other as they score whatever remains in the bird feeders after yesterday’s assault.

Squirrels are the bane of the backyard birdwatcher’s existence — ours, no less that every other hopeful householder who sets out a gourmet selection of seeds, fruit and crumbs to lure a fluttering crowd. While more intrepid bird fans tromp out in the bush for up-close observation, we less intrepid types avoid the sweat, cockleburrs and the mosquitoes by hanging out by the kitchen window and on the deck, hoping to tempt those feathered friends into less-arduous spotting distance.

And what do we get for our trouble? Squirrels.

Sleek gray squirrels, as big as a cat, squatting on the flat feeders and dangling head-first on the tubes. Quibbling little reds, chasing each other and chattering — loudly — from dawn to dusk as they grapple for sunflower seeds and scoot back into the trees.

And grackles — big, ornery black grackles, three times the size of the birds we lure, sending the meek birds flying only to gobble up whatever they’ve dropped from the deck and ground below. But mostly squirrels.

There was a day when squirrels seemed sweet, bouncing gracefully from limb to limb. We sympathized with the busy creatures. Heck, we even braked for the handsome little rodents scurrying across the street. Still do, as a matter of fact. But that was mostly before our own yard had trees … and we gained our own personal squirrels.

Thirty years ago, our yard in south Moorhead resembled a parking lot with a scruff of Kentucky bluegrass across its cheeks. Trees? They were hopeful broomsticks. Wildlife? Prairie birds — killdeers — nested in the empty lots behind us. Our four-footed neighbors were limited to voles and the sneak attacks of mice looking for a warm spot to spend the winter … and our roving Norwegian elkhound kept them all at bay.

Though birds abound along the Red River, we lived on the low-rent side of the street. Our neighbors whose houses rose above its banks boasted of multicolored clouds of feathered visitors. We did our best to tempt the outliers, stringing bird feeders on metal poles above the deck and installing posts to elevate birdhouses, hoping to lure them to our relentlessly sunny acre

And it worked! We’ve contributed mightily to Fleet Farm’s profits over the years, dragging home 20-pound sacks of millet and who-knows-what by the half-dozen.

As we learned more about each species’ tastes, we added delicacies — thistle seed for the goldfinches, cracked corn for the mourning doves and jays, black oil sunflower seeds for most everyone — and feeders to fit their dining preferences — tubes with saucers, pagodas, flat suspended trays. We even added dessert by way of hummingbird nectar contraptions, spikes for oranges and a gadget that holds a jar of grape jelly.

We tried exotics. Suet and peanut butter did bring on the woodpeckers … but when they started eating our cedar-sided house, we were persuaded to desist. Safflower seeds, though, were a revelation. The more desirable guys who like sun seeds enjoy them — but grackles abhor safflower. That, of course, deflected them to last year’s fermented fruits on the slow-growing ornamental crab nearby; it was an improvement, even though their crabapple feasts led to purple splots of poo in sundry locations.

You caught that mention of trees, didn’t you? Bit by bit, our broomstick landscape was evolving into a tidy urban thicket. Shade was slowly overtaking our plot. Petunias and zinnias began to struggle in their traditional spots. Tomato yields fell. The strawberry bed fell into a deep sleep. Eventually, we looked up instead of down at the ground, and there it was — shade!

And squirrels.

As the trees stretched out their arms, the first immigrant squirrels homesteaded in their branches. They concluded they’d found the Promised Land, with plenty of free real estate. Not only that: Here, manna regularly fell from heaven.

That was us, of course, faithfully restocking our bird feeders. Squirrels are smart. They quickly figured out that their new dormitory came with a full meal plan. They told all their friends.

As yards evolved into groves all up and down our block, our neighbors shared our annoyance with the sixth-smartest creature on this earth (said to rank just below humans, chimps, elephants, dolphins and octopi).

We dabbled in the latest high-tech squirrel-fighting firepower — feeders with perches designed to collapse beneath their weight; battery-operated spinners to fling them; broad, slippery baffles mounted below or over the birdseed supply.

You probably know how all of that worked out.

Trying to justify we humans’ No. 1  rank in the IQ department, the folks across the street tried spraying Teflon coating on their squirrel-friendly brick siding. It worked pretty well for about one day, until the next rain washed it off.

Our sweet neighbor lady to the south employed live traps. Then she’d take her prisoners for a nice ride out into the country and across the river. Yet she swore very familiar faces turned up a few days later. That’s when we all learned that squirrels can swim.

We ourselves tried dosing the delicious seed with enough cayenne pepper to light up a macho chili feed. The book said it turns off squirrels, while birds can’t taste it. Ours, however, seemed to have a powerful taste for Mexican food. The net result: nada.

We even tried reverse psychology. If they wouldn’t leave the birdseed alone, how about distracting them? That’s when Russ installed the spiked iron thingie, jamming corncobs onto each of its prongs. They love it — as an appetizer course in their ongoing banquet.

He upped the ante. This year we’ve gone whole-hog, serving up raw peanuts in the shell. They’re enclosed in a wreath-shaped coil of wire that’s supposed to slow them down and make the gourmet bounty last. Heaven! After they figured out how to climb inside, they can clean it out in an afternoon.

Superior human intelligence eventually has led us to one brilliant, unavoidable conclusion.

The squirrels have won.

We’ve given up. We’ve rebranded our year-round hobby “wildlife watching,” branching out from avians to more of nature’s tree-dwelling species. Technically, that could include such welcome sights as koalas and monkeys, I suppose, but here in Moorhead, that means our genius tree rats.

And, yes, we’ve renamed the seed-filled tubes in our backyard. We call them squirrel feeders.

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