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A Good Year for Squirrels

I MADE the mistake of telling our children that I liked a job where you could keep on learning. Now that they have the jobs and I am gainfully unemployed, they seem determined not to let me stop.

Even the novels they've bestowed lately have been highly educational: one on ocean trade in the 18th century (``He could not imagine any government, of whatever complexion, exposing the nation to foreign competition''); another on music (``Overtones. It's quite logical, nothing weird. But we have a great deal of work to do for you to understand how it works'').

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More overtly, I have been teamed up on, receiving a custom-made birdhouse from one benefactor and a hanging feeder, supply of seeds, and bird identification book from another.

But what I am learning about is squirrels.

THE predicted snow was beginning, so I picked a temporary spot for the birdhouse (complete specifications are coming from an appropriate agency). And I hung the tubular feeder from a tree, just as shown in the picture on the box, where a little girl looks up toward it at ``father height.''

The next morning, I was sitting by a window, reading the newspaper. I wasn't expecting any action. Birds might take weeks to find a new feeder, the instructions said.

I should have known enough to be terrorized when I saw the guarantee: repair or replacement - at company option - if the product should be destroyed by squirrels.

It has been a good year for squirrels, if by that you mean a lot of squirrels. My dad used to love watching them, and he told more than once about the man who came into his store with a pet squirrel peeking out of a pocket.

I've been able to take squirrels or leave them, remembering my surprise in Central Park when two circled near and grabbed at my pant cuff as if it were edible.

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I wonder if my cuff did happen to catch one of the peanuts that I like as much as squirrels do. The attackers could have smelled it from a distance, according to a debate in the very paper I was reading.

One side said squirrels possess remarkable memory, which they use to find goodies they've buried all over the place. I had just seen a squirrel dart to a pile of leaves and pick out a hidden nut it seemed to know was there.

The other side said forget about memory; it's a remarkable sense of smell that leads squirrels to the loot. Yes, a squirrel may find many buried nuts, but they could have been buried by anybody. And any nuts it buried might be unearthed by another squirrel with a good nose.

Suddenly, before my eyes, came evidence of the smell-over-memory theory of squirrel nutrition.

A squirrel was ambling past the window just the way Leonardo da Vinci says four-legged creatures do: ``The highest parts of quadrupeds are susceptible of more variation when they walk, than when they are still, in a greater or less degree, in proportion to their size. This proceeds from the oblique position of their legs when they touch the ground, which raise the animal when they become straight and perpendicular upon the ground.''

BUT I have to say the squirrels in our yard are more Disney than Leonardo. When a pair once invaded the basement, they raced above me along the heating pipes with a cinematic slither that might have been ominous without those fluffy tails. Mostly they are perky, looking up, looking down, looking left and right, and sitting on their haunches, holding a morsel like a book before nibbling and running.

The one I was now watching had its nose to the ground until it arrived exactly under the bird feeder. Eureka! Its head snapped upward. It wasn't remembering those seeds, it was smelling them. Fortunately, I had hung the feeder on a thin bending bough of hemlock that only a chickadee could love.

The burly squirrel - may I call it Tarzan? - whisked up the trunk, clambered through thick branches, and was looking down on the feeder quicker than you could say arboreal rodent.

Tarzan stretched down, down, down, reached, reached, reached one long straining strip of gray, but got only as far as the guaranteed metal top protecting the millet and sunflower seeds.

I TURNED away, perhaps smugly, leaving the scene for less melodramatic duty in my office. Coming down for lunch, I found I wasn't the only diner. Tarzan and maybe Jane were scoffing seeds from below the feeder. So was a ground-feeding bird or two (see, I was already learning that not all birds like to eat perched in the air). I thought that if Tarzan was smart enough to jiggle the feeder and serve meals on the ground, I was magnanimous enough to let nature take its course.

Now it's no more Mr. Sierra Club.

I happened to look out later in the day, and there was Tarzan, or possibly a more athletic colleague, hanging by his rear toenails. He was wound around the feeder past the metal top so he could sneak paw or nose into the openings and have dinner for one. I suppressed several squirrelous remarks.

Then I remembered Ogden Nash writing about the hunter crouching in his blind with guns and traps of every kind - this grown-up man, with pluck and luck, hoping to outwit a duck. Could I outfox a squirrel?

The literature on this subject is immense, so I'll spare you the false starts, trying to string up the feeder in the open between the second floor and the hemlock with the single-filament fishing line recommended for hanging pictures. The stress must have been different from a trout, and the feeder kept clunking down, spilling largess to the ground-lings.

But my mind was filled with passerines, perching birds, clinging birds, and pine siskins! I hoped to provide for them aloft as the snow increased. Already the birdhouse looked like a Swiss chalet.

I DIDN'T want to give up on the fishing line, whose thinness might defeat Tarzan. Why not tie it on its natural accessory, a fishing pole? Namely, the long whiplike one in the cellar with the reel forever locked by corrosion.

Using four strands of the barely visible line, just to be sure, I hung the feeder from the tip of the pole. I fastened the butt perpendicularly to a trellis. The pole arced over the frozen garden. The feeder bobbed in empty space. By now it was dark, so no one came.

The next day, Tarzan prowled the top of the trellis, neither venturing along the pole nor leaping like a squirrel (to echo a proverb recorded in AD 1400) at the suspended granary. A gangsta blue jay, too big for the perch, tried a midair refueling with wings treading air.

But it didn't take weeks for the right birds to come. Thank goodness, because soon the snow was more than a foot deep.And there was a chickadee, and another, and another. I know, because the book has their picture: black-capped chickadee, Parus atricapillus, distinctively patterned with black cap and bib, white cheeks, found in the northern half of the eastern United States, and visits feeders where it eats ... sunflower seeds. Am I still learning or what?

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