By Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.
Sometimes—not often—the message we humans receive from wildlife can be so clear it’s unmistakable. It can erase our presumptions or negate accusations of anthropomorphizing.
We understand when dogs are excited and happy, or not. Years ago, the snarl and open claws told us that our cat Oscar was not happy with the neighbor’s dog. However, Oscar “loved” our dog Boots. They hunted gophers together when they weren’t curled up together napping. The clues to their inner life were obvious.
So it was yesterday– we understood a nursing Mother Squirrel, a large gray furry animal with a handsome bottle-brush tail. She stood for minutes on our sunroom roof, staring at the birdfeeder tray husband Don had just re-built in an attempt to keep her off. She was studying it, trying to figure out how to jump onto it safely.
Here, in this retirement community, rats can be a problem. Hence bird-feeders are required to have a tray attached underneath to catch scattered seed. Our tray worked very well, until Mother Squirrel learned to jump onto it from the Griselia bush. When Don moved it higher, she had successfully jumped onto it from the roof’s downspout, then again from the sunroom porch roof. She even jumped from the ground and successfully caught the wire mesh on the underside of the tray.
She could have been satisfied with the occasional peanut the jays neglected, or some peanut butter on the pinecone in the nearby garden. Instead she got greedy, and Don had responded to the challenge. His solution to the squirrel invasion was to install three inch-long metal rods every few inches along both the top and bottom of the tray’s wooden frame.
Mother Squirrel had watched us install the revised bird-feeder plus tray plus spikes. Before that she had cleaned off the tray, when it rested for a few minutes on the ground, waiting to be fixed. The day before—when I forgot to close the door for a few minutes—she had also been inside the sunroom, found the bag of peanuts in a storage basket, and helped herself, leaving me to clean up her peanut shells.
What amazed us—after we had hung the revised anti-squirrel bird feeder tray—was how long she studied the new tray. Don called me to the window, and we watched her move here and there on the roof, calculating the new challenge. She must have decided that the possible leap to the tray was too risky, given its fence of nasty spikes.
Her caution relieved and amazed us. We hadn’t given her mental ability enough credit. After some minutes, she noticed us watching from inside Don’s office window. I shook my head slowly, hoping that negative signal would translate. It seemed to. Mother Squirrel looked us over one last time and disappeared across the sunroom roof.
I was about to say, “She hasn’t been back,” when Don called. She had just landed on the circular metal ring of the bird-feeder itself, missing the metal rods, and was helping herself to bird seed as fast as she could snarf it up. So much for reading squirrel minds.