Survival in the '90s: Wisdom from a Squirrel

ELLEN GOODMAN

March 23, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- As a child of the 1950s, I was taught to think of the squirrel as a lovable, furry role model of the American work ethic. The creature who frequented my school books worked his tail off all fall collecting the acorns of assorted oak trees. When winter came around he survived by just nipping over to his little tree grocery store for his three square nuts a day.

I should have known better, I am sure. The only tree in our apartment courtyard was an ailanthus, not an oak. The squirrels in our neighborhood seemed to spend most of their time perfecting their electric tightwire act.

But these were the Cold War years when all good little animals were expected to do their part for the great anthropomorphic propaganda machine. Remember the three little piggies? The boring, brick-house piggy was the one who survived the big bad wolf. You get the idea.

Since then I have learned the truth about urban squirrels, and of course about the economy. Squirrels may indeed put away their acorns for a snowy day. But they don't have a clue where they put them.

Their survival, indeed their complete takeover of the city, has nothing to do with the virtues of the good old 1950s: industry, husbandry, loyalty. They thrive on the economic tools of the 1990s: ingenuity, adaptability, flat-out nerve. And, of course, sunflower seeds.

Which brings us to the subject at hand. The case of the Wallenda at my window. Named after the humanoids, the Flying Wallendas.

For the better part of three years, I have been happily feeding an assortment of basic winter-hardy New England birds out of a modest plastic bird feeder at my second-story kitchen window. My Audubon life-list includes the squabbling finch family, several pairs of titmice, some overbearing blue jays, subdued juncos, sparrows and an occasional downy woodpecker, or, in this case, downy plasticpecker.

The first hint that a somewhat heavier visitor had taken up a post at the window was the discovery that the seed cups were being knocked to the ground. The second hint was Wally himself performing a flying leap from fence to electric wire to tree branch to window feeder. Degree of difficulty 7, execution 5.7.

This feat was matched by an extremely large mammal, female and human, lunging at the window, knocking in anger, and yelling at a squirrel not remotely my own size. Degree of difficulty 1, execution 3.5, factor of absurdity 9.8.

For several weeks, Wally and I performed our duet. He worked on his acrobatics with the passion of an apprentice in a circus training program. I worked on my bird-feeder defense hysterics. The difference however, was that he improved his act.

Sometime during February he learned to execute a soft landing in the feeder with one graceful motion. It would have taken him less time to learn, I am sure, except that the feeder was squirrel-proof. Did I mention that?

Never mind the 1950s squirrel, that dutiful hunter-gatherer. By my observation there is nothing as impressive and determined as a '90s squirrel conquering the latest technology.

After one month, he could not only get at the seeds, he could balance directly on top of the food under a small -- equally squirrel-proof -- overhang, thereby gaining food and shelter simultaneously. Degree of difficulty 10, execution 10.3.

A '90s kind of squirrel, he didn't just work hard, he worked smart. Indeed, he began exhibiting pride in his accomplishment and boldness at his feat. I, on the other hand, have been reduced to his co-dependent or his audience. If the feeder is empty, he stares directly through the window at me until I put down my newspaper and get him some more seeds.

Does this mean that I can't defend my own home bird feeder against a measly squirrel? The problem is that I belong to the old economy. I have to go to an office to write the words that get the paycheck that puts bird food in the feeder. I have to squirrel away savings -- just like I was taught -- while he spends all day learning new skills. He wins.

Let it not be said however that I am hopelessly mired in oldthink. I'm a '90s kind of gal. After all, I used to run a bird feeder. Now after extensive retraining, I can proudly announce that I am operating a squirrel feeder.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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