Squirrel Wars

squirrel-feederFor more than twenty years I have been fighting squirrels in my backyard. It’s a battle of wits that I’m losing.

Simple Solutions

My first efforts were naive. On the advice of friends, I bought a garden pole eight feet tall—having been assured that this would keep squirrels off. My handyman installed it outside my office window so I could enjoy the birds as I worked. Then I bought a cute birdfeeder with perches around the sides.

Within two days, the squirrels were practically waiting in line to climb the pole. After getting a short running start, they would scramble up, their momentum carrying them to the top. Sometimes it took more than one try, but soon it was a cinch. Frightened birds fluttered away.

My handyman suggested a wrap-around metal cone as a guaranteed way to repel squirrels. I had him install one near the top of the garden pole, following the manufacturer’s instructions. It worked for less than a week. After some trial and error, the squirrels found their way around the baffle by gripping the metal edges with their diabolical little feet. From there it was a short distance to the feeder.cone

Now I had a mission. I spent hours researching squirrel repellents. I was willing to try anything short of murder. In other words, this would be a battle of wits, not superior firepower. So far, I had spent $8.98 on a garden pole, $19.98 on a birdfeeder, and $36.95 on a metal cone. Instead of challenging the physical abilities of these little gymnasts, I thought, I’ll challenge their intelligence. With my Stanford-Binet scores, I should have no problem.

I searched on Amazon.com until I found a “Perky-Pet 336 Squirrel-Be-Gone Wild Bird Feeder” for $17.99. It featured six feeding ports with perches and a mechanism that closed access to the ports under the weight of a squirrel. My smugness was short-lived. The squirrels hung upside down on the feeder and never touched the perches. Sayonara $17.99 plus shipping.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

vaselineTime to be creative, I thought. Why not remove the metal cone and grease the pole with Vaseline? My effort was good for entertainment but not much else. On the first few attempts, the squirrels managed to make it halfway up the pole, then slid to the bottom like cartoon characters. Oh, joy! After that, they got a better running start and improved their strategy. Eventually, they rubbed off enough Vaseline to succeed.

My next idea was to drive them away with noise. I took a set of brass wind chimes apart with clippers and wired the chimes, one by one, to the bottom of the feeder. I hung the feeder below the eaves of the house, making access only a short jump away. When a squirrel hit the feeder, he’d be greeted with a mighty clang, be frightened out of his wits, and never come back.

The result was humbling. I was in the house doing dishes when I heard the chimes. Putting the last dish in the drainer, I dried my hands off and prepared to go outside and gloat. Then I heard a combination of a clang and a thunk, almost like a brass chime falling on the ground. Then two more. A squirrel had chewed the wires loose so the chimes did indeed fall to the ground.

Ready, Aim, Fire

My most recent attempt involved buying a water bazooka, loading it, and keeping it next to my desk. I didn’t have to wait long. As a squirrel fed on my sunflower seeds, I opened my office window quietly, took aim, and fired. The bazooka leaked all over my desk and soaked my smartphone.

Game over.c0aab9b7-4cf7-4418-9203-374d5ae705a2_1-b21d9a906bb4313e7118a6e73485011f

 

I Play the Accordion for Cows

A while back, I watched a YouTube video of a man playing his piano accordion on a vacant country road out West. I was interested because I, too, play the accordion. He sang a cowboy song. After the first few bars, cattle started emerging from the woods one by one, drawn by the music. After they’d come all the way to the fence that separated them from the accordionist, they stood respectfully in a semicircle, riveted by his song. Not a head moved. Not an ear twitched. When the accordionist finished, folded his instrument, and snapped it shut, the cows dispersed and moved back into the woods.

I thought, wow, I could do that. I recalled that when I drive to my morning A.A. meeting in Gainesville, I pass a field of cattle belonging to the University of Florida College of Agriculture. Maybe these cows would enjoy accordion music, too.

One morning, I put my instrumcowsent in the back seat of my car. After the A.A. meeting, I headed for U.F.’s cattle field. Parking on the curb adjacent to the cattle enclosure, I unloaded my accordion, strapped it on, and began to play. I sang, “Git along, little doggie” at the top of my lungs.

The cows slowly headed in my direction. When they’d come as close to the fence as they could, they stood quietly, listening to every note. Oh, joy.

Then a police cruiser pulled up on the curb behind me. I didn’t notice him at first. But when I was about to pack up and head home, I turned, and there he was, wearing his seamless and solemn police face. I said excitedly, “You can’t believe this, Officer. I saw on a YouTube video that cows love accordion music.” Looking at his face, he didn’t seem to share my excitement. In fact, he looked as though he was thinking about writing a ticket.

Then his features began to melt, the corners of his lips lifted, and dimples appeared in his cheeks. Finally, he laughed. I knew he was in. I said, “Too bad you missed the concert, Officer. I’m on my way home now.”

Pulling away from the curb, it occurred to me that someone probably called the police station to report a crazy old woman on Williston Road playing her accordion and singing to a field of cows. I also realized that the cruiser undoubtedly had a video recorder and the officer would be taking the evidence back to his buddies at the station who would get a good laugh out of it.

Me, too.

 

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A Camel—The Perfect Pet

Opening the Gainesville Sun one Sunday morning, I glanced at the “Pets for Sale” section. Not that I need any more pets.

To my amazement, I find that someone is selling a female camel for $3200. Right here in Gainesville! How exciting!

Let’s see, I have an area about 50 by 20 feet in my side yard. A perfect place for a camel. I just have to buy a bunch of straw and a truckload of camel feed, and I’m in business. What do camels eat? Hell, I don’t know. I’ll find out from the person who’s selling the camel.r964423_10400496

Think of it, I can ride my camel all over Gainesville, to the wonder and amazement of all. I will be a celebrity. The $3200 is no problem. I’m making enough money in my freelance business. What better way to spend it than on a camel? (I have to admit, this notion might never have occurred to me after I quit drinking a year later.)

Thwarted

I call the camel owner. No answer. Drat.

An hour later, I call again. What’s the matter with her? Doesn’t she want to sell her stupid camel?

I’m so excited that I call my 40-year-old daughter to tell her about the camel. “You’ll never guess what, Julie!”

“What, Mom?”

“I’m going to buy a camel.”

“What did you say? A camel?”

 “Yeah, I found one in this morning’s paper, and I’m going to buy it and keep it in my side yard and ride it around Gainesville.”

Long pause.

“I hate to tell you, Mom, but you can’t do that.”

“And why not?”

“Don’t you know that camels’ feet are ruined on cement? They have to walk on soft ground, like sand in the desert.”

I am crestfallen. “Well, rats. I guess I can’t buy the camel then.”

“Probably not, Mom.”

Well, there goes one great idea out the window.

Tricky Daughter

A year later, the subject of the camel comes up in a phone conversation. We are both laughing at my folly. I say, “Good thing you knew that about camels’ feet, Julie, or I might actually have gone out and bought the thing.”

Julie smirks. “I just made that up, Mom. To talk you out of buying the camel.”

I, Ixodes, the Mighty Tick

ixodes_cape_cover_06-2I am Ixodes, the Mighty Tick. My full name is Ixodes Scapularis. I’m more commonly known as the deer tick. You may have met me during your outdoor adventures. I’m the little brown thing stuck on your leg that you can’t pull off. That bug you’ve heard so many bad stories about.

This is my true life story.

Life as a Baby

came_out_of_egg_03I started life as an egg. Inside my egg was enough food to last a couple of months. After that I had to push my way out and hustle for my own grub. Tiny? I was no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence. I had six legs, not that you could see them without a magnifying glass.

When I first got out, I didn’t have a clue what to do next. But I had that wonderful thing called instinct. I had the sense to crawl up on a leaf near the ground and wait for dinner to come to my door.

Then, what do you know? A fat mouse appeared. I could smell it, hear it, and even feel its body heat. Suddenly, it all made sense. What I needed for dinner was blood from that mouse.

An Eating Machine

at_center_of_my_beautiful_02I scrambled onto the mouse’s fur and looked for a place to eat. I knew then that I was an eating machine! For a mouth, I had a long, prickly sticker with a tube inside. I sank the tube into the mouse’s skin. When it was in, I spread my body out and got ready to stuff myself.

You may ask, how did I get by with this nasty sticking and biting? Why didn’t the mouse feel anything? My saliva has a chemical that numbs the skin. Another chemical acts like glue to keep my body fastened in place so I won’t be scratched off.

All I had to do was sit there and suck through my tube like a kid with a straw in a milk shake. When I was full, I squirted out another chemical to dissolve the glue.

Molting

After I was done with dinner, I was almost 200 times bigger than when I started. A really fat dude. Because my shell was practically bursting, I had to get rid of it and grow a new one. That’s called molting. When the shell had fallen away, my soft underbelly was completely exposed to any bird that fancied a snack. It was a scary time. It took a month for the new shell to grow on. In the bargain, I got two extra legs, making eight in all.

At this point, I was ready to eat again.

The Bad News

Some mice—like the one I bit—carry viruses in their blood that cause Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease. If the mouse I bit was infected, it meant that I was, too. And if I was infected, any human I dined on would get the disease.

lymes_disease_03People who get Lyme disease are in for a bad trip. They run a fever, their body aches, and they’re tired all the time. A red rash starts around the tick bite. In a few days a red ring forms around a clear circle, like a bull’s eye. If the disease is diagnosed quickly and the doctor starts an antibiotic, the person will probably recover. If not, they’ll have all kinds of medical problems and may never get well.

rocky_mountain_fever_01Rocky Mountain spotted fever is worse. It starts out with a rash. A week or two after the bite, people get so sick that they end up in the hospital. They can’t breathe right, hear, or talk clearly. Unless given antibiotics quickly, three of four infected humans die.

Tips for Humans

You’re safe if you find a tick on your skin before it starts feeding. It takes ticks a while to find a warm safe spot. The humans who know what they’re doing grasp a tick near the head with tweezers and pull straight out. They don’t twist the tick or leave a chopped off head in the skin, where it can still cause an infection.

tick_removal_02

Smart people put the dead tick in a jar for a couple of weeks until they’re sure they’re not getting sick. If they find a rash or feel funny, they go to a doctor and take the tick body in a jar for lab testing.

Some advice

  • Spray your clothes with permethrin before going out in the woods. It lasts for a month, even after laundering.
  • Spray your skin with Deet.
  • Stay on trails instead of hiking through the undergrowth.
  • If you take a dog, put a flea collar on it or be sure it’s current on tick prevention medicine.
  • Do a full-body check of your skin after you’ve been in the woods.
  • If you find a tick remove it with a pair of tweezers, pulling straight out. Be sure to get the head along with the body.
  • Shower when you get in, never giving ticks a chance to hunt for a good feeding place.
  • Wash your clothes.

Happy trails!

Tanja Askani–Creator of the New Bambi and Thumper

Return of Bambi and Thumper

Tanja Askani, a Czech author, photographer, and animal scientist living in Germany, has disseminated a series of Bambi-Thumper photos that have gone viral on the internet.  People find them adorable. When I received the series in my e-mail, I thought they looked too good to be true. They were.

After downloading the photos and examining them in zoom view, I found clear evidence that every photo had been altered substantially. We’re not talking about subtle adjustments in contrast or lighting. The “reality” of animal tenderness and bonding shown in the photos is the result of digital artifice.

Photoshop Magic

Askani’s creative combinations of two more photos into one made me wonder. Were the deer and rabbit ever actually nose to nose? My hunch is that Askani got some good shots but could not resist tinkering with them. I think she ended up creating the photos she wished she had taken, not the ones she actually took.  Being a Photoshop expert,  I know the temptation to make a good image better.  But pasting one image on top of another and passing it off as a miracle of interspecies bonding is fraud.

Arrows in the photos point to some of  the areas of Photoshop fakery. The paste-ins, blending and use of line tools and brushes weren’t even done skillfully. Methinks Ms. Askani has got herself in a bind with her now-famous Bambi-Thumper photographs. How can she acknowledge her deception (which will surely be exposed) and maintain any kind of reputation as an animal photographer?  Or animal scientist, for that matter.

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South American Bush Dog–Smallest of the Wild Dogs

The smallest of the wild dogs is the South American bush dog, weighing in at less than 15 pounds.  No bigger than a terrier, it has a solid little body and short legs. The bush dog is built low to the ground so it can dart through the underbrush of the rainforest without being seen.

The problem with their small stature is that bush dogs can’t even see each other in tall grass and thick bushes. They make up for this with a repertoire of grunts, squeaks, whines and growls that carry over long distances at ground level. They “talk” almost constantly, telling each other where they are and what they’re doing. Bush dogs also mark their paths of travel with frequent urine marking.

Bush dogs have soft, reddish brown fur.  With their short ears, round heads and blunt noses, they look more like weasels than dogs. When a bush dog jumps into the water, it looks like an otter, paddling with its webbed feet.  Bush dogs dive underwater like experts and swim with their eyes open to catch fish, turtles, and other water animals. Because of this ability, they usually live near rivers. To watch a video of bush dogs catching a turtle  click here.

Holes vacated by armadillos and other burrowing animals often become the homes of bush dogs. Others move into hollow logs. If they can’t find anything ready-made, bush dogs dig their own dens (photo).

Hunting together during the day, a pack of bush dogs fans out over the forest floor. Occasionally they hunt alone, listening and sniffing their way along. As a pack, they work together so intelligently that they can bring down prey as large as peccaries and tapirs—some weighing over 500 pounds.

When a bush dog pair has pups, other adults in the pack stop mating.  This allows the group to focus on one litter at a time. For several weeks, the babies stay hidden in their den.  The extended family makes sure no predators get close. When the pups finally emerge, pack members share the job of protecting and feeding them.  Their aunts and uncles carry them in their mouths just like their parents do.

As the pups outgrow nursing, pack members bring them food–chewing it first and then transferring it to the babies’ mouths.  The pups paw at the muzzles of the adults to them know they’re hungry.

Among the friendliest of the wild dogs, bush dogs greet each other joyfully after a separation, wagging their stubby tails. They sleep close to each other (click here), travel in an orderly way (single file), and rarely fight over anything. The packs have no clear ladder of dominance the way other wild dogs do. They treat each other as equals. It’s hard to say who’s running things in a bush dog pack.

Little is known about these secretive animals because they stay so well hidden in the rainforests of South America, mainly in Brazil. Much of our knowledge of their behavior comes from zoos helping to preserve the species in captivity. Zoo staff find them friendly and sociable, much like pet dogs. As of 2010, the American public could see bush dogs in only five city zoos—Oklahoma City, Palm Beach, San Antonio, St. Louis, and Little Rock.

The Dingo Dog–Wild Dog of Australia

Australians are proud of their dingo dogs. The species is unique to their homeland and is rarely, if ever, found elsewhere.

Normally, dingoes live in the Outback–a vast arid region covering most of inland Australia.  They avoid human settlements.  In times of drought, however, the dogs are forced to migrate in search of water and food, taking them into areas populated by humans. Since sheep and cattle ranches are so common in Australia, many dingoes end up on ranch land.  This has given them a taste for livestock, especially sheep.  Sheep are easy marks because they seldom run away. Instead, they huddle in groups, undefended.

Understandably, most sheep ranchers have zero tolerance for dingo dogs. Because the dogs also feed on dead livestock killed by other predators, they’re sometimes blamed for deaths they didn’t cause.  When dingoes are hungry enough to wander into towns and villages, they scavenge from garbage cans and even kill pets—a practice that earns them no friends, either.

On the other hand, some ranchers have befriended dingoes, using them as working dogs. Owners say they’re as tame as domestic dogs when raised by humans.  Dingoes are smart and friendly, though they can get touchy during breeding season. Sheep ranchers who use them for herding report that their dingoes never attack sheep. Dingoes take their jobs seriously and obey commands well. Some families keep dingoes in their homes and find them to be good pets. (The practice is illegal in some parts of Australia.)

The person lucky enough to spot a dingo in the wild usually sees the dog traveling alone. While they belong to small family groups, the members seldom meet unless it’s mating season. Then they spend most of their time together breeding and raising pups.

Dingo packs have clear territories and avoid the ranges of other dingoes.  Each pack is fierce about protecting its own range. An unfamiliar dingo who wanders into their territory is likely to be attacked and killed. This seldom happens, though, because unrelated groups are careful to avoid each other. Dingoes rarely fight with members of their own pack.

Dingoes are excellent hunters, working out their tactics ahead of time. At least two lead dogs are responsible for locating a target—a kangaroo, wallaby or smaller animal.  They chase their prey to a place where other pack members are waiting in ambush. With their agility and skill, they know how to steer a prey animal just where they want it.  Those lying in wait are good at cornering the animal by dodging this way and that.

Dingoes “talk” to each other by howling, whining, and sometimes growling.  (To watch a dingo howl click this link. They growl for the same reasons pet dogs to—as a warning. Unlike other dog species, they bark very little—and then only to indicate aggressive intent. Sometimes the bark is followed by a long howl that rises and falls. They also howl to show affection when they greet each other.

The government of Australia classified dingoes as an endangered species in 2004—a step toward protecting them as a form of wildlife found only in Australia. Some wildlife experts say that it’s impossible to preserve the species in purebred form because dingoes have already interbred too widely with pet dogs.  Interbreeding started as far back as the 1800s when immigrant families brought their dogs from Europe. Over the years, many of their pets escaped or were let go.  A large number joined dingo packs. As the dogs mated and raised litters, the numbers of dingo hybrids multiplied.

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The Painted Dog–Wild Dog of Africa

The wild dog of Africa is best known as the Painted Dog. You can see why.  With their bright spots and big round ears, these dogs can’t be missed as they travel in packs through the savannah. Another term for them is the Cape Hunting Dog. Their stride and confidence say, “Don’t mess with us.”  For a video (without bloodshed), click here (Wild Dog Pack).

Painted Dogs are fierce enemies, but within the pack they are gentle as lambs. They like to nuzzle and brush against each other. When one gets sick, the rest nurse it back to health. They cooperate in raising litters of pups. After a successful hunt, Painted Dogs save some meat to carry home to the puppies, adults who stayed behind babysitting, and sick or injured pack members.

Life in the wild is dangerous so they take good care of each other. They don’t fight over females.  When two of them have their eyes on the same morsel of food, the competition takes a strange form.  They try to outdo each other in their begging performance.  Each puts on such a pitiful display of hunger that eventually one gives in and walks away.

The intelligence of Painted Dogs and their ability to carry out complicated hunting strategies pays off.  At least eighty percent of their hunts end in a kill—a much higher rate than that of most African predators.  Lions are lucky to bring down prey thirty percent of the time.  In fact, they often steal carcasses from Painted Dogs.

Painted Dog packs are large and need space.  With Africans taking over more land for ranching, some dogs have developed a taste for farm animals—a habit that has backfired on them. Farmers now hunt and kill Painted Dogs. The dogs also pick up diseases from farm dogs. An outbreak of rabies, distemper or parvo can threaten the lives of an entire pack.

The African Painted Dogs are among the most intelligent dogs in the world. They don’t rely on instinct alone to tell them what to do. They depend on knowledge that has been passed from generation to generation.  This includes information about hunting strategies, the best places to find water and food, and the dangers that surround them.

The wild dogs of Africa are an endangered species.  Once there were over half a million. Now there are fewer than 5000.  Painted Dogs can still be found in the countries shown on the map. Because they need such large ranges, they are hard to raise in captivity.

Raccoon Dogs–Wild Dogs of Asia

Doesn’t this look like a raccoon?

The animal in the photo isn’t even related to a raccoon.  It’s called–you guessed it–a raccoon dog.  It belongs to a species discovered in the cold regions of Asia more than two hundred years ago.

In the 1800s, Chinese trappers realized the economic potential of raccoon dogs. Their lush winter fur made great overcoats.  Traders began to hunt and trap the dogs, then export their fur. Soon, Russian entrepreneurs decided to obtain some raccoon dogs from Asia and breed them for the same purpose. Before long, other eastern European countries followed suit.

These wild dogs are about the same size as terriers but their weight fluctuates throughout the year.  In the spring, they’re at their lightest.  In summer, they start fattening up in preparation for winter—just as bears do.  Those still living in the wild spend the coldest months of the year dozing in dens and living off stored fat. Their fur thickens to help them conserve body heat.

Raccoon dogs are the only dogs that hibernate.  They don’t sleep as deeply as bears, but they slumber off and on when the snow is deep or the weather is particularly harsh.  As the skies clear and temperatures warm up, they leave their dens to hunt for food.

These little dogs are easy-going and seldom fight.  When a predator frightens them, they scream or play dead. Occasionally, male raccoon dogs courting the same female get into skirmishes, but they rarely do much damage.

They eat almost anything.  The protein in their diet comes from insects, rodents, frogs, birds, and even dead animals.  Because they swim well, fish are also on the menu.  Raccoon dogs living near water look for water bird eggs and chicks. The dogs like plant foods, too–fruit, pumpkins, tomatoes, nuts, and grain.  In Japan they’ve been seen climbing trees with their curved claws and picking fruit.  They often raid gardens, vineyards, and grain fields. Click on this link to watch a raccoon dog feeding in the wild. (free dinner).

Although raccoon dogs aren’t allowed in the U.S., many Europeans keep them as pets. They find the dogs easy to live with and safe with children. However, they can’t be trusted around gerbils or other small animals.  Feeding them is cheap as they eat almost anything.

When householders are at work, the dogs seldom get into mischief around the house, because they sleep most of the day. However, families who allow the dogs outside must take precautions to make their yards escape-proof. Raccoon dogs are expert diggers and make holes under fences.

The only thing owners complain of is how much raccoon dogs shed every spring.  As the weather warms up, the dogs get rid of their thick winter fur—which collects in large tufts around the house.

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The Cockroach That Ran off with a Stick of Spaghetti

A friend recently told me that her aunt saw a cockroach run off with a stick of dry spaghetti.  I asked whether the aunt was in the habit of telling tall tales. My friend said no.

Now I wonder whether cockroaches can really do this. If I knew the aunt was a fibber, I would shrug it off.   But since I’m not sure, I have to go around wondering if a cockroach can really run around with a stick of spaghetti in its mouth.

The other day, I heard an acquaintance telling friends about her experience rescuing a baby squirrel from her yard.  After getting the advice of a wildlife center, she fed it from a dropper. She kept the squirrel for quite awhile, she said.

I asked, “But you couldn’t release it into the wild again, right?” No, she said, she got the wildlife center to take it.  However, while she had the squirrel, she discovered that it liked being stroked under one front leg—it’s “sweet spot”, she called it.  The other squirrels hanging around her house saw this. Since they were pretty tame, she tried it on them.  What do you know? They liked it, too.  So much that they stood in line waiting their turn for their “sweet spot” to be stroked.

Afterward, I thought, “Hold on here!” I enjoy true stories about animals’ unusual abilities.  But squirrels standing in line? I’ve had a lot of contact with squirrels over the years, and I can’t imagine them standing in line for anything. Squirrels push, shove and bully each other.

Why am I so irritated by this whopper?  After all, the woman didn’t con me out of money or do any real damage.  I guess I’m still smarting from being such a sucker.

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