Sassy Sue wows the bark park visitors with her catching and retrieving.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Mr. Squirrel Leaves a Message

A thank you note would have been better.

I have mentioned how birds remind me to feed them. They show up to chirp at me when I am near the garage door. They come inside to look for food on the garage floor. They even fly over to the cupboards to see if I left the doors open again. The squirrel cleaned me out last year when I did that. I came home to a cupboard full of sunflower seed hulls. He probably invited the whole clan to help.

I keep some corn out for the squirrels most of the time, so one of them left a message recently. I was working around the house and in the driveway. When I came back to the garage, there was an empty cob just in front of the garage door opening, where I could not miss it.

Mr. Squirrel could have said hello from a branch, as the birds do. He could have waved a greedy paw, the one he used to scoop out all the seed from the bird feeder. Leaving an empty cob was a tacit accusation of neglect. That was cold.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Ichabod asked about the yellow cardinals. I looked, when snow was still falling, and there were goldfinches already changing color. They love sunflower seeds, so they are regular, persistent feeders.

Many people buy African thistle just for the finches, and I can see why. However, the squirrels like to empty seed socks without eating the food. Anyone can get into the equivalent of the arms race dealing with this. The answer is to buy armored feeders that will allow finches to feed while repelling clever squirrels.

That also means spending even more on thistle seed, which must be made out of gold, considering its price. It is a rank weed, so the seeds are sterilized before being sold, lest they spread through America and kill their business.

Sunflower seeds and suet will fill almost all needs. The squirrels even come over to suet and treat the wire cage as a Dairy Queen cone. Suet and sunflower seeds cost only pennies a week.

More shelter will attract additional birds, but not everyone can live on the edge of a forested ravine. Dripping water will encourage birds and other animals to stop by for a drink and a bath. My best dripper was a large darkroom chemical bottle. One end made it easy to hang from a tree. The valve could be opened so that one drop came out every few minutes. It is that high-pitched dripping that attracts the animals.

When I had a rock waterfall on my pool in Phoenix, geese flying overhead craned their necks to see the source of the water. I thought, "Great. Now they will stop next year and plaster the pool with droppings."

Spring has arrived in Arkansas. I have already started sowing sunflower seeds for the summer crop. I simply toss the black oil sunflower seeds where they have a chance of taking root before being eaten. One little garden area is fallow - meaning I did not feel like digging it up. Covered with decaying leaves, it is ideal for a sunflower garden. I am ordering giant striped sunflower seeds for that garden and some other places.

I buy from seed supply houses because the drugstores and hardware stores sell colorful packets for too much money. They also think I want morning glories for a cheap hippy high. Morning glory seeds are not sold retail in Arizona, while tons of drugs march across the border each day, on the backs of illegal immigrants.

Sunflower seeds can be planted as a fort with sunflower walls, around play equipment, for children and grandchildren. Children like to hide among the growing plants.

Sunflowers are impressive at nine feet tall, with huge disks forming. A squirrel will ride the flower and eat it before the seeds form, then come back and harvest the finished seed-heads.

Another fun project is to have a striped Russian sunflower contest, to see who grows the tallest or the biggest disk. The key to optimal growth is plenty of water and a foundation of manure or compost. Sunflowers are heavy feeders (like corn) and thrive when given all the food they want. They droop as soon as the water level is too low for them; it is surprising how demanding they are.

Meanwhile various creatures enjoy the growing sunflower. Spiders locate there and trap insects. Grasshoppers will land and chew on some leaves, unable to keep up with the growth. It must be an insect's dream come true, to land on food that never stops growing, compensation for a short life. Birds love to see their food moving around on a tall object, too. A Russian sunflower soon creates enough strength to support birds looking for food on the plant or nearby.

My mother was quite an expert on insects. She pointed out to all the phobics that almost all insects are beneficial. They balance each other, as God planned. A lot of pest insects will attract and feed a preying mantis. Cottony maple scale is the perfect food for lady bugs (named after the Virgin Mary). Scale insects landed on a maple tree once and soon lady bugs were all over them.

Ants are the morticians of the insect world, collecting the departed and taking them home for a memorial feast.

Wasps are sadistic, planting their eggs in insect larvae, only to have them hatch in the midst of fresh, moist food.

Sowbugs and pillbugs live in decaying vegetation, hating sunlight. Starlings will march along, with their comical gait, flip over a leaf, and have a meal. And yet people call starlings a pest bird. Few birds are smarter or more active in eating weed seeds and insects.

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