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Chipmunk warfare.

Byline: Robert Z. Nemeth

COLUMN: ROBERT Z. NEMETH

People who have known me over the years also know that I don't give up easily. Some might even say I have a stubborn streak, which might explain the seemingly unending war I've been waging against chipmunks and squirrels that invade our bird feeders.

It is a losing battle, with no light at the end of the tunnel or any chance for a diplomatic solution.

Our backyard faces a wooded area, and there's plenty of wildlife around the house. But birds are our primary constituents, and we have three supposedly rodent-proof feeders, two in the back and one in the front, next to the kitchen window. Each offers a different menu, ranging from sunflower seeds to thistle seeds and cracked corn. My wife, Charlene, buys sunflower seeds in 40-pound bags at BJ's. (She also put out a bottle-shaped container filled with red syrup-like liquid that is supposed to attract hummingbirds, but that's another story.)

It would be hypocrisy to pretend that concern about the birds' well-being motivates us to feed them year around when we know that nature yields plenty of nourishment during the mild-weather season. Truth be told, we simply enjoy having them around, and learning to identify the different varieties. For our two cats, who are not allowed to roam outside, watching the action through the windows represents reality TV.

There was a time when the only bird I recognized was fried chicken. Now, I usually can tell the difference between sparrows, juncos, nuthatches, chickadees and an occasional titmouse - our steady clientele. (Behind their backs, I call them "junk birds" because they look undistinguished compared with some of the elite.)

There are at least two pairs of cardinals and their offspring among the regulars, along with yellow and purple finches (they turn brown for winter) as well as a rose-breasted grosbeak, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, cowbirds, grackles, robins and blue jays. (I haven't seen a hummingbird yet, but we don't talk about that.) We have our bottom-feeders - obese doves that linger underneath the feeders to gather the fallout. There's an occasional flock of wild turkeys, but they don't show much interest in the feeders.

What interferes with this bucolic existence is the evolution of increasingly sophisticated rodents with a passion for bird seed.

As each new generation of squirrels and chipmunks is becoming more resourceful, we're being forced to store seeds in reinforced metal cans, because the critters find their way into the garage and can chew holes in heavy-duty plastic containers.

Trying to protect bird feeders against the invaders is a task that would tax NATO. Last year, I spent a good part of summer lurking around the house with a garden hose, ready to squirt any rodent approaching a feeder. I usually missed the target, and the chipmunks and squirrels just laughed at me, and so did the neighbors.

As the arms race has intensified, we resorted to various anti-rodent devices. A large, box-shaped feeder, hanging from an eight-foot pole in the backyard, is equipped with an adjustable pressure-sensitive perch that cuts off the seed supply when anything heavier than a bird lands on it. It works fairly well against squirrels, although we had to use tape to block air holes and prevent the creatures from sucking out seeds through the holes. However, the smaller chipmunks learned to bypass the safety perch and get into the tray that holds the seeds. They would shovel the stuff to the ground where the bottom-feeders were waiting. Soon, the box was empty.

Charlene tried to fight back, spraying the pole with the household lubricant WD-40 to prevent climbing. That was OK until the next rainfall washed away the gunk. Now she's talking about buying some device called a "baffle" to limit access to the pole. (I'm afraid it will only baffle us, but not the chipmunks.)

The other two feeders are wire tubes hanging from tree branches. They're designed to allow birds to reach the seeds while keeping unauthorized visitors out. But most chipmunks are small enough to squeeze through the wire. This year, two juvenile delinquents perfected the process to the point where they dart in and out at will, as if the rodent-proof contraptions were fast-food restaurants on Main Street. Dousing the connecting tree branches with WD-40 proved to be a temporary solution at best.

Squirrels, too bulky to get into tube feeders, adopted a different strategy that entails a well-coordinated collaboration. A squirrel would position itself on a nearby branch, stretch out, grab the tube and shake it vigorously as the bottom feeders on the ground waited for large quantities of seeds to spill out. When we trimmed the connecting branches, the squirrels moved higher up the tree and proceeded to dive on the feeders from above. They've learned that if two of them jumped at the same time, the kamikaze attack could generate enough force to send the whole apparatus crashing to the ground, emptying it completely.

Not ready to give up just yet, we're prepared - dug in for a long cold war. But while hoping for the best, I have an uneasy feeling that in secret research-and-development departments deep in the woods, furry little chipmunk and squirrel scientists are planning their next move.

Robert Z. Nemeth's column appears regularly in the Telegram and Gazette.
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jun 3, 2012
Words:888
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