Tired of all the snow?  Think of the birds and all the other critters out there who have to live in it.  At least, they don’t have to go hungry.

My favorite place to watch them eat is from an old, overstuffed bucket chair in the living room, located next to a full-length glass, sliding door.  The door opens to the deck.  Bird feeders hang at the nearest corner of the deck, about 15 feet above the ground.

The bird feeders are hung on a forked oak branch, with two crossbars.  Oak branches wear well; they don’t rot like birch or crack like hemlock.  This one has withstood 16 winters.

There are only two feeders.  One is a standard tube, with horizontal perches for bird convenience.  The other one is also a tube, but equipped with a ring at the bottom that spins squirrels off if they land on it.   I have never seen a squirrel thrown off mine.  I think that is because they have already experienced these devilish contraptions, operated by a hidden battery, and learn quickly.

The birds are too light to set the thing off.  The squirrels still try to beat it by hanging by their rear feet from the crossbar and try to reach the seed door at the bottom.  But the feeder is too long for them to reach the food.  They get very frustrated.

It’s not that I don’t like squirrels.  I do.  Someone described them as The Flying Wallandas of the mammal family.  They are great fun to watch.

Not only are they incredibly agile, they are quite handsome.  Ours are Eastern Gray squirrels.  Their fur is a soft gray, with flecks of brown along the spine that denses up around the head.  The ears taper to a pink point, and Asiatic brown eyes are lined with a precise, tan-colored ring.  Then there’s the tail, fluffier than the pelt, trimmed in white and very versatile.  When a squirrel hangs from a branch, its tail helps the hind legs hold on.  It also flicks to show anger or alarm.  When a squirrel is foraging on the ground, it tucks its tail over its back, out of the way.

The most intriguing thing, to me, is the way squirrels eat.   They sit on their haunches and the front legs transform into tiny hands with fluttering fingers, pushing food into their mouths.  There’s something very human about it.

They are voracious eaters and, like us, are into instant gratification.  A well-stocked bird feeder, with all those seeds and nuts and fruit for the taking, is a God-send.  They don’t like anyone horning in, even their own kind.  Birds keep a wide berth.

Humans have devised all kinds of ways of keeping squirrels off bird feeders.  I don’t think it’s because we believe they should starve.  But they are real pigs.  They are also clever, and because of that, they test our mettle.  My father-in-law rigged up an electric plate that zapped them when they touched a feeder, but somehow they figured out if they didn’t stand on the grounded plate they wouldn’t get shocked.  So, the old man resorted to a pellet gun.  But as soon as he would open the sliding door, even very quietly to take a bead on them, they took off.  Thus, the spinning feeder.

As for the birds, anyone who watches them – even rank amateurs like me – can detect the basic techniques of each species:

First, there are the grab-and-go eaters, like chickadees and titmice, different from the stay-and-feed types, like junkos and crows.  Then there are the perchers, like goldfinches and nuthatches, as opposed to the ground or flat feeders, like doves and wild turkeys.

Perching birds tend to take their food to a nearby branch to eat, but woodpeckers stay for a few bites before flying off.  (They prefer suet, but raccoons like it too, and invariably knock the holder to the ground).

The experts say that grab-and-go birds don’t like to stick around for fear of predators, like hawks.  The stay-and-eat types mostly congregate in groups on the principle of safety in numbers.  This does not apply to crows, who are big enough to do what they want.  No one hangs around, though, including squirrels, if a hawk is detected in the neighborhood.

My favorites are the junkos.  With their chunky little bodies and yellow beaks sticking out of dark gray feathers, they merrily eat away on the railing and the deck floor, oblivious to others.

Chickadees are the gutsiest of the lot.  Some don’t even wait until I have finished filling the feeders before alighting, sometimes mere inches from my head.

All these antics are endlessly fascinating, and I don’t care whether we’re fooling around with Mother Nature by interceding, as some purists believe.

Wildlife is entitled to the pursuit of happiness, just like I am.

– GAK 02/09/14

Blue Jay