They came to the country, the old man and his wife, from the wilds of suburbia.
The wilds weren’t so wild anymore. They had been when the old man and his wife were young and had their own nesting instinct. They settled into an old farmhouse to raise the children. The farm itself had been subdivided for sale to young families. Now it was raising its final crop: houses.
The houses on the surrounding lots were as big as the old farmhouse, which had been built for farm families of 10. By then, no families were that large, not even in the subdivision. The McMansions simply had larger rooms, which became large empty rooms when the 2.5 children moved away.
That had happened to the old man and his wife, too. Soon the big, old, drafty house was empty and lonely, except for the two of them and the mice and the cats that were accessories to any old farmhouse.
Neighbors did come to visit, not from the homes but from the woods. The robins, goldfinches, blue jays, and perky little woodpeckers stopped by every morning for the birdie breakfast buffet at their feeder.
So did the squirrels.
The old man and his wife loved the birds, but they–hated is too strong a word–disliked the squirrels. The clever gray devils would romp and cavort and outmaneuver the couple’s faster but smaller feathered friends. The squirrels jumped from branches, swung from adjacent feeders, climbed mounting poles and generally made an acrobatic nuisance of themselves.
Soon the squirrels were eating more of the bird seed than the birds themselves, frightening them away. The couple tried everything. Loud cowbells to chase the invaders. Super-Soaker water guns. Even live traps. The old man would drive the captive squirrels into the state forest to release them.
Those traps and trips not only didn’t work, they backfired. The fluffy-tailed vermin just found their way back, inviting the friends they met along the way.
You might think that was just the old man’s imagination, but he knew better. He recognized one squirrel in particular that he had brought deep into the forest, a chattering little fellow with a lopsided ear. He named him Sammy. Sammy the Squirrel.
Well, little guy, it could be worse, he thought as he drove Sammy halfway across the state. I could have named you Squiggy or Squidward or something.
It took the old man an hour to drive back from the forest that day, and he felt a bit guilty. But then, only two days later, there was lopsided Sammy and a half-dozen of his new friends.
Riding the Tilt-a-Squirrel
With even more squirrels coming every day, the old man tried a new form of feeder. It was a single pan on a short post, no more than three inches high. It was designed for ground-feeding birds, but perhaps the squirrels would go for the low-hanging fruit and leave the fly-in feeders alone.
It was fine for the small birds, like the goldfinches, who would fly in for family feasts. But the ground-feeding birds–the mourning doves especially–did not like the tipsy table that spun wildly under their weight. They were happy to keep their feet on solid earth.
The squirrels, however, loved the new pan and treated it as an amusement park ride. They’d jump aboard and twirl it in all directions, scattering seed as they did. The old man even dubbed the pan the Tilt-A-Squirrel.
Then one day, the cat from a neighboring McMansion crashed the birdie buffet at the Tilt-a-Squirrel.
It was over quickly, but not a pretty sight nonetheless. The old man blew away the feathers with his leaf blower, and the couple began looking for a new place to hang their feeders.
The old man and his wife knew it was time that they flew the coop.
A little place in the country
And so it was that they found their little place in the country. It wasn’t really in the country, exactly. This over-55 adult community was in a remote area, far from the madding crowd. It, too, was farmland now raising its final crop: condominiums. But there were no woods, no trees.
The old man and his wife lived on a small lot adjoining a postage-stamp community park. They knew they would never see the young birches grow to maturity. Yet in their shade, or where there would be shade someday, the old man hung a feeder.
“If we hang it, they will come,” he told his wife, although she was doubtful. There were no real trees, no place for nests. How would their feathered friends ever find their way here?
They did, though, first the jays, then the cardinals, the finches, the blackbirds, the woodpeckers.
But no squirrels.
Let the chips fall where they may
Heartened, the old man and his wife added new feeders–suet for the woodpeckers and winter birds, a dish for mealworms for the bluebirds, even a timer-operated feeder that distributed sunflower seeds throughout the day so they would not all be gobbled up.
One day, though, the old man noticed a rustle in the underbrush and out popped a chipmunk. He watched as the little brown fellow–they all seemed to act like brazen males, although he would never get close enough to tell for sure–scurried around picking up scraps scattered from the feeders that had fallen like manna from heaven.
Most were content to do clean-up detail after the large birds scattered the seeds on the ground. But one kept looking up and dreaming of bigger things. This chubby fellow he nicknamed Charlie.
One morning, the old man looked outside. Charlie was nowhere to be seen, but two small chipmunks were running relays between the base of the pole and the garden. He knew they were regulars and figured that this was one entrance to their den.
But what was the point of this game of tag? And where was Charlie?
His eyes followed the pole up to the main feeder, a designer-styled house of woven wire. Unlike the timed feeder that dispensed only small tidbits like sunflower seed, this one had large mesh. The couple used this to serve the mixed nuts and seeds. The bag’s label called it No-Waste Mix, but they had dubbed “diversity seed” in a nod to the times.
The most prominent feature of this feeder was its tunnels where small birds could fly in, grab a bite, and fly out protected from larger predators.
The Great Escape
There, fat and snug and quite comfortable in the tunnel, was Charlie. His back was to the old man, who could nevertheless recognize him by his size and the way he carried his tail.
Charlie was struggling with something, although the old man couldn’t see it through the rodent’s rump. He figured it was a nut that was too big for the mesh.
The chipmunk’s efforts were enough to move the feeder, which soon started slowly rotating around. Soon the old man was face-to-face with the perpetrator, who froze with a guilty look on his chubby, seed-stained cheeks. Then he nimbly leaped from the feeder to the pole and scampered off with his friends.
Frustrated, the old man stomped out to examine the feeder, only to find the mesh of the cage pried up and out like the detritus of a jailbreak.
He patched the corner with a bit of hardware cloth while his wife found and ordered a circular pan to fasten around the pole. Seeds that fell from the feeder landed in the pan for the ground feeders. The determined chipmunks, however, couldn’t scale the overhang to crash the feast.
The birds were happy. The old man and his wife would have been happy, too, but they felt a bit sorry for the chipmunks. As they studied the pan from the ground below, the little fellows looked so much like puppies sitting up to beg for a treat.
In a fit of soft-heartedness, the old man even placed a dish of diversity seed under the pan, alongside the post, for the chipmunks to enjoy. The plate was empty in less than an hour.
The two smaller chipmunks were running their relay races back to the den, just as before. This time, though, Charlie was nowhere to be seen.
A flash in the pan
A week passed, and the couple grew concerned. Had something happened to their little friend? Life just wasn’t the same without Charlie.
Then, one morning, the old man looked out his window and could not believe his eyes. There, sitting expectantly under the pan that blocked the path up the post, was Charlie with his two little friends.
He stared back at the old man, who beckoned to his wife from the kitchen. She came running, peering around her husband’s shoulder.
The chipmunk saw them, did a little double-take, and scampered back into the garden.
“Where do you think he’s been?” the old woman asked her husband.
“And where do you think he’s going?” he answered.
Then, suddenly, a large gray streak flashed out of the garden toward the post and launched itself up onto the pan, which was about two feet from the ground.
There the streak resolved itself into a squirrel. A two-foot running high jump from the ground would be little challenge for a squirrel in its prime, but this particular fellow seemed tired, winded. Instead of landing squarely in the center of the pan, he dangled from his forepaws at the edge like some sort of desperate mountain climber.
The old man didn’t quite notice that resemblance until the squirrel turned its head and looked back over its shoulder expectantly, revealing a lopsided ear.
The old man and the old lady looked at each other and said in the same breath: “Sammy?”
Before they could finish, a smaller brown streak zoomed up Sammy’s tail, over the top of his head and into the pan. Then Sammy scrambled up behind.
Sammy and Charlie parked themselves in the pan, gathering nuts in May. They watched their old friends through the window and waved their tails merrily in greeting.
The old man and his wife looked at each other, smiled, and tossed out an extra scoopful of diversity seed–for old time’s sake.