At Peace With Squirrels

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Today is National Squirrel Appreciation Day, a day to dispel the bad rap so often given to these ubiquitous critters. I have come to terms with the resident eastern grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) in my garden by installing a cone of black metal that baffles them from eating all the seed from the winter bird feeder. Now, instead of cursing them, I enjoy watching their antics as they dash up and down tree trunks, use twiggy branches as springboards up in the bare canopy and, as indeed they do, try to get around the baffle. When they sit still, for perhaps a moment, I see how endearing they can be. Front paws curled under as if in a muff, tail ornately curled, and a twinkle in a mischievous eye.

The squirrels I get to see up close seem relatively healthy. They are not suffering from a lack of black sunflower seed in their diet. They must be relying on caches of acorns and nuts gleaned in warmer months. A keen sense of smell and a good spatial memory aid them in the recovery of hundreds of caches. They employ an anti-theft device against onlookers and clever blue jays by digging fake holes and reburying vulnerable food. Uncovered caches, twenty per cent or so, contribute to new oak forests. Another favorite food of squirrels grows in my tangled wood, namely, black walnut. Squirrels are well equipped with four sharp incisors to break through the bright green outer husk of the fruit. That gnawing sound often accompanies me as I garden on a warm fall day.

As well as planting forests these busy, scurrying animals provide other benefits for our environment. All of their digging and burying aerates the soil. Squirrels build a lot of nests using leaf litter and twigs sturdy enough to withstand winter storms. In severe cold spells they nest together in tree cavities. Birds and other animals often use any of these nests that go unclaimed. Squirrels are omnivorous and will eat tree-infesting beetles as well as lawn grubs. In turn, squirrels are an important food source for birds of prey.

So as an arctic blast of air sends wind chills plummeting, I am hoping that habitat in my garden provides a warm place for squirrels to hunker down and their stores of food will last until warmer days when I’ll hear their little barks and see the flick of that incomparable fluffy tail.

For the Birds

This past fall I enjoyed the migrant birds in my garden. I watched sparrows (white-throated and song) return along with yellow-rumped warblers. Flocks of golden-crowned kinglets perched on branches and flower stalks to glean tiny insects. They seemed fearless and allowed me to get quite close to them. One day I was thrilled to observe a group of northern parulas bathing in the pond. Amongst them was a further surprise - a lone Canada warbler identified by a dark grey necklace on its bright yellow breast.

However, I was alerted to a hazard for these birds when I kept on hearing the sound of dull thuds against my picture windows, from which I have a beautiful view of surrounding trees. Reflections of this canopy in the glass were proving to be deadly. So I used some specially designed bird tape from the American Bird Conservancy to prevent further collisions. Now my windows have arrays of 3” squares of opaque tape. There is still a view from within, the birds can sense there is no way through and this arrangement is proving to be quite decorative. The squares sometimes shimmer with shadows and light.

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The meadow looks wonderfully disheveled and fertile with seed. Moleskin pods of butterfly weed have wrinkled and split to release their contents. Dark brown seeds attached to a downy parachute spill out and accumulate around the pods until a breeze teases them away. Common milkweed released its seeds in August and American goldfinches line their nests with those silky tufts. Next spring orioles can use the strong, flexible fibers in milkweed plant stems to weave their hanging sock-like nests.

Little bluestem has many fall hues and it catches the sunlight in its fluffy seeds. It will turn all gold and provides winter interest and food and shelter for the birds. Along with other native meadow grasses it is the larval host for skipper butterflies, which overwinter as a chrysalis in nearby leaf litter. Golden pompoms of Maryland golden aster, towering spires of Joe Pye weed and New York ironweed, and thistle heads of rudbekia and purple coneflower provide copious amounts of seed for chickadees, cardinals, titmice and juncos. And I love to watch the little hop-skip-jumps of the white-throated sparrows as they scratch at the ground to find fallen seed. Needless to say, I do not cut back the meadow until late winter. Leaf litter is allowed to remain wherever it falls off the garden path because it is a valuable resource. It is a layer where butterflies lay their eggs, where spiders haunt and where many other invertebrates live or seek shelter. Food for many an avian visitor can be found here in winter and in the spring to come.

Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) has large clusters of shiny red berries. They may persist well into winter and cheer the snowy landscape while providing sustenance for the northern mocking bird, the American robin and the brown thrasher. The flowering dogwood tree (Cornus florida) also produces brilliant red berries, which will feed the northern flicker, the yellow-bellied sapsucker and the eastern towhee. Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) produces tiny little red apples. This is a very tart fruit, which will persist on the shrub before becoming palatable enough for a late winter feast.

Snow will eventually cover the bounty of this late season. But I stock up the feeders and melt ice on the pond. Dried stalks in the meadow, evergreens and thickets of shrubbery provide shelter. All will be ready against the ravages of winter when I can still enjoy watching birds in the garden.