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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

My war with the squirrels

Backyard battles sum up larger truths of conflict in a nutshell.

A squirrel makes way through Michael Dobie's blackberry

A squirrel makes way through Michael Dobie's blackberry and blueberry garden. Photo Credit: Newsday / Michael Dobie

Here’s the thing about wars: They’re hard to end.

Once you’re in a fight, and you and your foe are equally committed and equally armed, it goes on and on and on.

I speak, of course, of the squirrels.

We’ve been at odds for three summers now. And it’s a shame, because we used to get along so well. Our family would watch as they chased each other around the trunk of the huge oak tree in the backyard, and as they gathered up acorns in the fall. Having to dig up countless oak saplings from acorns the squirrels buried then forgot was just the price of admission for getting to observe their antics.

Then the oak tree came down in a rainstorm in 2010. Irene and Sandy felled more oaks the next two years, neighbors proactively removed others, and whether it’s causation or coincidence, the squirrels attacked the tomatoes two years ago when, I’m presuming, they got hungry.

Last summer, they pretty much wiped us out, despite the nets we draped over the patch. In retrospect, that was weak.

This spring, we knew we had to change tactics. We bought plastic owls to mount on poles, ceramic cats to place on the ground, and an electronic thingy that emits a (supposedly squirrel-annoying) clicking sound when it detects motion. And we started talking about a physical barrier.

Then, in July, with the tomatoes still several weeks away, we saw a squirrel in the blueberries.

That was our first combat zone — with the birds. They love blueberries, too much as it turned out. So we stretched bird-proof netting over a PVC frame and staked it to the ground. And after some trial and error, it worked.

But there was the squirrel, inside, munching away.

We ran out, shooed him away, and patched the net he had gnawed through. A half-hour later, he was back. We re-patched the net and sprinkled (supposedly squirrel-annoying) red pepper around the base. He sneered and went back in.

We placed railroad ties around the base. He climbed the wood and resumed gnawing. We lined the base with (supposedly squirrel-annoying) duct tape, sticky side out. Yeah, right.

Finally, we cut clear leaf bags into two-foot swaths and hung them around the base, thinking the plastic would be a deterrent. That seemed to work.

And a couple days later, on the other side of the yard, we found a partially eaten unripe tomato on the ground, right next to the electronic clicking thingy. Another front of the war had opened.

Escalating, we put up a 4-foot-high plastic fence with tall poles and netting pinned to the top. My grandson, wondering about the squirrel’s next move, gestured to the rest of the garden and with perfect 7-year-old wryness, said, “It’s like a buffet for the squirrels.”

By now, as you see, we’ve anthropomorphized the squirrel. He’s crafty. He’s relentless. He’s resourceful. All admirable traits, except in an enemy.

He also is singular, or so we thought, until we saw three squirrels in the yard the other day. He might have cloned himself. I wouldn’t put anything past him.

So far, the tomato gambit has worked. But last week, looking out the side window, I saw him sitting on the fence beside the blackberry bushes, a luscious one in his greedy claws. We didn’t run to chase him out. We just stood there. We have a lot of blackberries. At some point, you have to give him his due. But we’re wary.

Then came Thursday. He was back, scurrying across the yard to the raspberry patch. That’s backyard gold, if you have a thing for raspberries as we do.

He stopped, stood on his hind legs, and stretched way up to pick off one of the berries above him.

It’s war.

But he was kinda cute.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.


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