***As I run through my morning media checks, I sip my tea and watch my little corner of the world. The dining room window overlooks a narrow section of the Mississippi River as it meanders through central Minnesota. "My river" attracts lots of wildlife, and I have strategically placed feeders around the yard to assist "my birds" as they raise their young and prepare for the inevitable winter. My favorite feathered visitors this year are a trio of juvenile blue jays (collectively known as "the Jays", an obscure reference to America's Next Top Model) and a trio of juvenile pileated woodpeckers (affectionately dubbed "Larry, Moe and Curly").
When we bought the house, it came with a large, covered bird feeder, complete with a squirrel-blocking tube around the pole. This great feeder, backdropped by the river and framed by white pine and oak branches, is a favorite to all kinds of birds. From the very beginning, it was a challenge to keep the feeder full of sunflower seeds in the face of such popularity. Lately, however, the task has reached Sisyphean proportions.
There are two things you should know about my family before I continue with this story.
The first thing is that my husband was born, raised and lived solely (until 2 years ago) in southern California, where squirrels are not common, especially not the big, bushy-tailed kind that fill the treetops in Minnesota. Despite my best efforts, he refuses to recognize them as the noisy tree-rats they are. He thinks they're "cute".
The second thing is that we have two good-sized dogs. (In California, land of the yappy lapdog, I used to describe them as "big dogs". Here, they are dwarfed by the hunting, herding and sled-pulling breeds preferred by Minnesotans.) They are good dogs, sweet and sociable with people, but I've been unable to break them of two bad habits: they chase small animals (like our elderly cat) and they run off whenever they get a chance. The first bad habit means they are not allowed in the house. The second means we had to fence a large portion of our yard, including the section that runs parallel to the river.
The new fence runs directly under the sunflower feeder. The squirrels think this is fantastic as it allows them to circumvent the anti-squirrel tube. Apparently squirrels are a gossipy bunch, because in the past month the squirrel population has exploded. Great big, pompous gray squirrels. Twitchy little red squirrels. Ninja-like black squirrels. I can't look out a window without seeing at least one. The dogs don't even chase them anymore; there are so many I think they've decided our yard is a squirrel sanctuary.
I sneak up on them, getting as close as I can before clapping my hands and barking loudly (I'm trying to model the appropriate behavior for my dogs who are understandably confused). I encourage the bigger birds to "Show them who's boss!" and "Take back the feeder!", but they have yet to take my advice. They just collect in the trees around the squirrel infested feeder and sulk. When the squirrels have left, the pileated woodpeckers land on the roof of the empty feeder and drum their displeasure.
So, I pour more seeds into the feeder and hope the birds get their fill before the squirrels come back. I've also been teaching my pup, Wiggles, the difference between naughty cat chasing and good girl squirrel chasing. The squirrels may be unstoppable, but so are Wiggles and I.