THE NEWEST SQUIRREL – Marilyn Armstrong

Most of the squirrels who come to hang out on the flat feeder are bigger and fatter. They have scars, some of them relatively new and raw. This was quite a small squirrel. Not scars that I could see, not even a mismatched grown-in area of fur. Maybe still a young one.

Not yet a survivor. I wondered how he would do with all the dangers surrounding him. It was like watching your little one and hoping they will survive kindergarten … or freshman year … or … parenthood!

Young squirrel
We see each other!
Young and hungry

THE SAFETY OF HOME – Marilyn Armstrong

While I was starting dinner, I was watching out the window. Suddenly, a hawk with a white front swooped by the deck then winged off into the woods.

I followed him with my eyes. The camera was in the dining room and I didn’t hurry to get it. I knew I’d lose the hawk before I got the camera focused. Mostly, I wanted to get a good look at him before he disappeared.

I was curious why he swept so close to the house.

Hawks are hunters and don’t usually get so close to houses. It turned out, after minimal research, to be a Cooper’s Hawk. It wasn’t hard to find because among the white-breasted hawks, there are only two living here: American Eagles and Cooper’s Hawks. I’ve seen plenty of American Eagles. They are much bigger than this hawk, so Cooper’s Hawk it had to be.

And he was hunting for exactly what was on my deck: birds and squirrels. Those are a Cooper’s Hawks two favorite foods. The deck is his perfect hunting ground, his dinner buffet.

This is one of the things I feared when I set up the feeders. We have so many predators in the area and so little prey. How did we get so out of balance? Doesn’t it usually go the other way? Don’t deer usually overtake the area?

I remember when we had so many chipmunks they used to line up and chatter at us in groups. Now, we never see chipmunks. We use to see rabbits sitting on the lawn in the sun in summertime. I haven’t seen a rabbit in years and until we put up the feeders, I hadn’t seen any squirrels, either.

Mice I know about because they invade our house every autumn. We have an annual battle to keep them outside. It’s not personal. It’s just that they make an awful mess in the house.

We also used to see more deer, but I’m sure the coyotes have taken them down.

I wonder now if the reason the squirrels have taken refuge on the deck is that they think the house is some kind of protection for them from the hawks and the other predators. Is this house protection for the birds and squirrels?

By sending them back into the woods am I sending them to their deaths? That’s a terrible thought.

I feel like I should invite them all in for a warm dinner and a comfortable nap, but I’m pretty sure the dogs wouldn’t get along with them especially well. It could get pretty raucous.

GUEST AUTHOR: KARIN LAINE McMILLEN – THE BIRDFEEDER OPERA

I really related to this story! And I thought you might enjoy it too. Oh, the cleverness in the animal kingdom. We think we are so smart but sometimes, I really wonder.

Marilyn Armstrong


The Birdfeeder Opera – by Karin Laine McMillen

I lived at home during my first year of graduate school saving money by commutable proximity to the University of Iowa. It was an interesting experience. The redefinition of my relationship with my parents was a little bumpy.

I poured ice cold water on my mother in the shower one day, no doubt trying to recapture some of the fun dorm life with my college mates. Mom was not amused. My dad found out where my sometimes boyfriend lived and felt it was ok to stand outside his window yelling “Karin I know you are in there.”

But once we had our “come to Jesus” on that topic things went a little better. I also think it was that moment when I grew up and decided I should get a job and my own apartment in Iowa City.

I digress. This is really the story of animal life and the amusement that often comes from human interaction, underestimation of the cleverness of wild creatures, and their symbiosis with our larger world.

Our beautiful home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa had been a run-down, dark, very boxy colonial when my parents purchased it. By the time my mother and father were done with it, a two-year process, it was a light, modern, flow-through home with all the amenities required for luxurious family living with three daughters.

It was situated in the woods atop a large bucolic gully. This was fantastic as it meant that my dad had no lawn to mow. My mom, being an opportunistic feminist, has never pumped her own gas, let alone operated any type of lawn machinery. She uses her feminist views to simultaneously sit atop a “little girl on a pedestal” throne whilst insisting that just because she is a woman, she shouldn’t have to do all the traditionally female tasks.

In short, she made my dad a slave to her every whim, including attempting to orchestrate the nature outside for her viewing pleasure.

My parents are both very good designers.

In our home, where solid walls used to be, a row of floor to ceiling glass doors and windows lined the entire rear of the home, offering panoramic views. A patio was constructed by my dad and my mother purchased and ordered the placing of multiple bird feeders for her viewing pleasure of year-round bird frolicking. Her favorite bird feeder was an oblong, cyclonic, ceramic, cyan, Scandinavian, seed-filled feeder with a lid at the top and holes and perching sticks at the bottom. In order to fill it, the douli-shaped lid slid on the two hanging ropes and was supported by the friction of the small ceramic holes against the rough wool twine.

In winter especially, my mother made it her mission to keep this particular feeder full. She enjoyed watching the birds flutter around it as much as she enjoyed ordering my father to fill it. During this year at home, when the Iowa winter was in full bloom, the barking began.

“Larry, did you buy bird seed for the Scandinavian feeder?” (Because everything is more important and better when it is labeled “Scandinavian”.)

Before the vowel of the known answer came back “no,” my mom was already on him.

“You go to Menards every day, why can’t you remember to buy my bird seed! And get the kind that has such and such, blah, blah, blah and this and that. NOT the kind that you got last time! I like the kind that is multicolored so that when it falls on the ground it is pretty. “Laaaarrry, are you listening to me????!!!!”

“Yes, Diane!” would come back just as the door to the garage slammed. I listened to this with detached amusement for several weeks. So I barely noticed when the tune stayed the same — but the lyrics changed. The new chorus was “Larry, did you fill the feeder? It’s empty again! I swear you didn’t do it!”

This was followed by the drumbeat of slamming pots and pans and the response “Diane, I filled it! I’m halfway through that bag”.

“I don’t believe you! Why is it always empty? I haven’t seen any birds all winter! You’re lying to me!!!!”

“Diane, why would I lie to you? Do you want to see the bag?”

“Don’t you bring that dirty bag in here!”

“Do you want to watch me fill it?” He would grumble unintelligibly while traipsing out in the subzero temperatures with said bag.

Not a raccoon, but close enough!

This went on intermittently in the early winter weeks and was thankfully interrupted with the new barking orders in preparation for the Scandinavian Advent and Scandinavian Christmas celebrations. But in early January, I heard the familiar call and response continue. As daddy’s little girl, I wanted to defend my dad. But in truth, I knew that he often lied to my mom and I had other things to think about.

Until one morning on my way to class …

As I walked towards our mudroom to retrieve my shoes, coat, and purse, my peripheral vision caught a large, darkish blob moving on the patio. It was sufficiently disruptive to my brain that I froze. Instinctively I knew it was an animal and any sudden movement could render the thing gone before I could ascertain what it was. I slowly turned and was able to fully observe a delightful little comedy.

Raccoon (Procyon lotor) raiding bird feeder at 8 PM in the brush country of south Texas, October. (Wild individual in wild setting.)

Precariously hanging with the use of two back paws from a tiny single branch was the fattest raccoon I have ever seen. He (don’t ask me how I know it was a he; I’ve had far too much contact with raccoons at summer camp and knowledge I wish I didn’t have) had one front paw in his mouth and one front paw inside THE bird feeder. He was scooping out and eating the multi-colored feast as fast as he could swallow.

I thought to myself, “Oh, that is funny. Dad didn’t put the top back on the bird feeder.”

I watched Mr. Fat Racoon steal the feed as the little birds on surrounding branches stared unblinkingly for the few and far between scraps which fell to the ground through the little bottom holes. I glanced at my watch and debated if I should continue to observe the scene and risk being late to class.

I even, briefly, thought of opening the door and chasing the raccoon away so the birds could have their food. But my previous encounters with raccoons made me think twice about that foolish notion. I’m not sure why I didn’t just bang on the window which would probably have scared him away, but I think it was the curious and mischievous nature that I share with the raccoon which made me continue to observe, amused and statuesque.

When the little paw could be seen attempting to find more feed from the open holes at the bottom of the feeder, the raccoon put both front paws to his mouth, licked each digit hungrily and then did something I didn’t expect.

With his two hands — sans opposable thumbs — he held onto the opposite sides of the lid and slid it down to its rightful place atop the feeder, adjusting it until it was even. He looked at his work, nodded to himself and climbed up the tiny branch which had bent 180 degrees from his weight. He then proceeded to climb down the tree trunk and sauntered through the brush displaying his hindquarters to me like a woman comfortable with her hips.

When I next heard the “Larry, did you fill the bird feeder?” opera, I smiled to myself, shook my head and envisioned that animal disappearing into our woods. It was several decades, and long after that house was sold before I told the tale one night at dinner …

A MORNING FOR BIRDS WITH POINTY BEAKS – Marilyn Armstrong

Spiky Squares and Pointy Beaks

Every morning I get up and peer out of my bathroom window. Every day, there is a Cardinal there, eating at the flat feeder. By the time I get to the kitchen, he is gone. Or he is there. I grab the camera. He is gone.

Junco and Nuthatch, sharing the feeder
Two birds who are NOT afraid of other birds … or each other

All the fun birds to photograph are the first to fly — except the woodpeckers. But they always eat from the back of the feeder. I know they are there from the movement of the feeder, but I can’t get pictures unless they come to the front. They do sometimes.

Downy or Hairy Woodpecker? I thought this was a Hairy, but I’m not sure. Seems bigger than the other one who I’m sure is a downy (smaller beak).
This little Downy Woodpecker is pretty funny and rather athletic! He also seems smaller than the other one …

I also think they are intentionally cute.

Earliest in the morning, it’s squirrels, emptying out the flat feeder. As soon as the squirrels left, I got the big mourning doves who are pretty good at emptying out the feeders too.

My morning squirrel
Time to go home!

They are really fat. Actually, all my birds are fat. The Juncos are particularly fat, though Garry thinks the Cardinal is the fattest bird he has seen to date.

He definitely can’t see his feet. His stomach is in the way.

THE DAY THE SQUIRRELS DROPPED BY – Marilyn Armstrong

I was looking for birds. Seriously. It’s supposed to snow tonight and maybe tomorrow or Sunday, too and that usually puts them in a feeding frenzy.

Instead, there were not one, but two squirrels, each gripping one of the feeders. And it was the middle of the day, not the time when you normally see squirrels. They tend to be early morning and twilight feeders.

I got some great squirrel shots and there was a Cardinal on a branch back in the woods who wasn’t coming near the feeders until those weird, funny, furry birds left.

See the cardinal in the woods?
Athletic, isn’t he?
Hanging on with rear claws
Squirrel on the rail
A relaunch to the feeder from the rail
The thinking squirrel

And a Cardinal back in the woods.

Cardinal back in the woods

THE BOBCAT’S BACK – Marilyn Armstrong

The bobcat’s back and I hope we don’t have any trouble. We never had dogs running loose before, but we can’t keep the Duke in the fenced yard, so I just hope they don’t intersect anytime soon.

Squirrel survivor

I looked out on the back yard this morning. It was covered in a couple of inches of snow on top of a crunchy batch of solid sleet. I could see Duke’s prints too. There was an interesting crosshatch of bobcat and dog prints and I got to thinking that I really hope the Duke doesn’t try to take on the bobcat. I’m pretty sure the bobcat would win that one.

A local bobcat. Smaller than ones in other parts of the continent, but able to leap 30 feet in a single bound. I’ve seen them do it. It’s amazing.

It’s a small bobcat, about the size of a large house cat, but those little guys are strong. And hungry. We only have one bobcat at a time except when we get a mother with kittens. As soon as one of the kittens lays claim to the area, all the other cats disappear. There’s only one bobcat in an area at a time and unless they are mating, they don’t pal around with each other.

Our perching Mourning Dove … He actually sat there long enough for me to finally get a few clear shots. Then he flew away but he was really patient with me and the camera.

It also explains why the birds have been so nervous. The squirrel that showed up this morning looked healthy, but something — my best guess is an eagle or a hawk — took a piece out of his neck. Somehow, he wrenched free.

Red-Tailed Hawk – They live in Canada and the U.S.., coast to coast.

It’s a battleground out there. We have always had more predators than we have prey. That’s why we don’t have a cat. They get eaten, as often as not by coyotes, but a big red-wing hawk can take a cat or a small dog … or a baby goat or lamb. They always warn us not to leave puppies outside unless they are in a cage with a roof. And even with that, keep it close to home.

We have a lot of these guys, too. You can see them in the driveway around twilight.

Raccoons can easily kill even a pretty big dog. They have super thick skin, long teeth, and claws. Adults can (and do) top fifty pounds. They are a lot stronger then they look and can under the right circumstances.

They come in all sizes and no matter how cute they are, be careful. If they aren’t tame, they can be pretty rough.

And then we have our own polecat, the Fisher, which will pretty much eat anything but prefers fish. We tend to get very romantic about animals in the wild, but they are the hunters and the hunted. The small ones hunt bugs and the eggs of smaller birds. Bigger ones hunt them … and then, there are even bigger hunters.

The Fisher who is not actually a cat. He’s a weasel with a beautiful coat. Nearly extinct from hunting and is now making a serious comeback. He likes our backyard. It’s sunny and he will sit in the middle of the sunny area and he won’t leave until he’s good and ready. They come in very dark brown, black, and deep red. They are not friendly and they are bigger than they look in pictures.

In the end, there is us. We hunt everything because we have guns … and we can. Meanwhile, I hope my little wild dog doesn’t decide to take on a bobcat. That isn’t a match I want to see.

And then, there’s the Duke

TRIBUTE TO THE DETERMINED SQUIRREL – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Tribute

When I went to buy my bird feeders, some feeders were listed as “squirrel-proof.”

After I read the reviews, it proved what I pretty much knew: No feeder is squirrel-proof. What the feeder I bought said was that though squirrels would get to it, the feeder was sturdy enough to still be a feeder after the squirrel finished eating.

Squirrels really eat. They get up on the feeder, usually the flat feeder. It’s easier for them being nothing but a large, flat hanging piece of wood with a screen on the bottom.  Today, though, it was full of frozen sleet and I don’t think any of the critters could get into it. I was up early because I had to call UMass Hospital and that’s always a lot more effort than it ought to be.

I called once and clearly whoever I was talking to didn’t know anything, so … I called again. After which, I called my current cardiologist. I got the piece of paper my cardiologist sent. But it was a release to give the hospital access to all the material they already had.

I called back and I said, “How am I supposed to fill this form out, especially because I already transferred all my medical information to you folks more than two years ago?”

I finally got transferred to the administrator of the cardiologist group and it all got straightened out in about two minutes. All I needed was to talk to someone who actually knew what was going on.

She told me not to worry, that the cardiologists all had access to pacemaker checking equipment and it wasn’t in a separate lab (as had been true both at Beth Israel and with my previous cardiologist), but was in the doctor’s office. I could decide if I to do my regular pacemaker checkups in person or via telephone.

Telephone? You can do it by REGULAR and not a special smartphone. Just a regular telephone connected on WiFi.

I knew it was possible, but I figured it required some special equipment I didn’t have — or at least, an application I would need to install. But apparently, any telephone will do the job. Isn’t that amazing?

And when she finished explaining this — which really made me feel a whole lot better — she gave me HER DIRECT TELEPHONE NUMBER.

I said: “I’ve had the hardest time trying to get in touch with people at UMass.”

“We have far too many phone numbers,” she agreed. “But this one will get you directly to me. I work 6am to 1pm, so if you call in the afternoon, leave a message and I promise to get right back to you!”

Music to my ears. Truly, after the fiasco with AT&T (they actually sent me ” come back, we have deals!” last night proving they really don’t get it at all), to have someone give me a number I can call so I can talk to someone who  knows what’s going on and can give me an answer.


Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Please choose your favorite Deo or whichever individual, creation, or thing to whom (or which) you joyfully offer heartfelt gratitude. In my life, this varies dramatically depending on everything.


Anyway, that’s why I was up early and that’s how, having finished talking to the Cardiology Administrator (bless you, my dear) I wandered into the kitchen. I had brewed coffee and toasted an English muffin — and the window to the porch was easily visible from the kitchen and dining room.

There, wrapped around the hanging feeder, was a hungry squirrel. Eating. Not easily because getting seeds through the screen works better with a beak than a jaw … but he was doing it.

The squirrel looked at me. I looked at the squirrel. He went back to eating black sunflower seeds which all the larger birds from woodpeckers to doves love — and that includes squirrels.

I picked up my camera and took pictures and he moved around to make sure I had photographed his “good” side. I’m not sure he has a bad side. He hung in every possible position from which a big squirrel can hang from a feeder. He did, I noticed, have a nasty gash in the back of his neck, as if a hawk had tried to grab him. It was scabbed over, but it must have really hurt. I was glad he got a meal at my deck today.

Eventually, I got pictures from every angle and I wanted coffee. The toaster had popped. I wanted my muffin while it was hot.

So this is a tribute, a paeon to the determination of our creatures of the woods. Despite our destruction of so much of their habitat, they find a way to survive. Some of us put out some food for them because we think it’s the least we owe them. We can’t save it all, but at least we can make sure they get the occasional decent meal.

Here’s to the determination of squirrels who can always find a way to get a meal out of any bird feeder. Here’s to squirrels who escape from the hawk and to hawks who hunt the squirrels. Because that’s the way it works in the wild.