I like to think that I am supporting wildlife when I feed the birds in my backyard, but more selfishly I enjoy the pageant of lively colors and frenetic activity of cardinals, finches, sparrows, woodpeckers and nuthatches outside my sliding glass doors.
I pay a high price for my self-indulgence.
If I feed the birds, I feed gray squirrels. Six to eight of the bushy-tailed rodents are regulars at my four feeders. They dine on peanuts, dried mealworms, corn, and sunflower and safflower seeds.More ExpresswayReader essaysReader essaysGet published in NewsdayCartoonMatt Davies' latest cartoon: Hourglass
I don't begrudge them some of the food. They need to eat like other wild creatures. My problem lies in their greediness. They gorge themselves until there is no food left, stuffing their cheeks to stock hiding places near their nests. Experts say that in the winter, birds rely on feeders for about 20 percent of their food. The squirrels eat everything, all day.
I know they are hungry. I know that they must chew continually to keep ever-growing incisors from becoming too long. I know that winter ice sometimes defeats their attempts to find buried nuts. I know they are a favorite prey of hawks and most of them die in their first year of life.
But they are constantly on my feeders.
I used to hang my feeders by fish line or wire from a big, hollowed-out pin oak. The squirrels couldn't negotiate the wire to steal the food. But then superstorm Sandy damaged the tree, and I had to have it removed last year.
I put in a 4-inch-square post to hang the feeders, but at 8 feet, it isn't tall enough to to defeat squirrel acrobatics. I attached a baffle -- a semi-rigid plastic disc that is supposed block the squirrels' path -- but they get around it.
The squirrels are admirably tenacious and superb athletes. In the winter, they leap off snow piles to make pinpoint landings on the feeders.
I had to move the feeder post after they clambered up my new little dogwood tree, launching themselves from impossible distances to grasp the mesh of a "fly-through" feeder. I watch them cling there upside down while, hour after hour, they painstakingly extract and devour seeds, prying them from small feeder ports or through iron mesh with their paws. These antics infuriate me. They rarely pause in their eating. When do the birds get their chance?
They angered me sufficiently that I tried a different tactic from inside my house. I tied a sturdy string to their favorite feeder and fed the string into the house through the cat door. Lying on the floor, I pulled on the string and shook the feeder violently. I dislodged a squirrel -- but within minutes he was back up there. That was a failed solution.
I saw paradichlorobenzine mothballs advertised to repel squirrels and put some in a feeder. They seemed to deter the squirrels for several minutes, but hunger overcame the aversion to the odor. The little birdhouse feeder with two clear plastic sides showed the white mothballs nestled in the seeds and a squirrel nose burrowing there as the rodent hung by prehensile toes.
I'll come to love the pesky beasts, irritating as they are. I worried about them when they disappeared for a day following a snowfall, probably unable to negotiate the snow.
The Internet, in the meantime, gives me hope for next year. A new kind of motorized squirrel-repelling feeder is advertised for $150. I might just invest in one of those.
Reader Betty Brown lives in East Setauket.