Squirrel Sentinel

Russell’s dog Betty is here for a visit. At our house, her job is to protect our backyard from squirrel invasions. She sits atop the back steps, ever-vigilant, ceaselessly scanning for squirrel intrusions and the foul depredations that would inevitably follow if one of the furry rodents were to actually set foot in our yard.

At some point in the past, Betty’s ancestors must have had a serious run-in with squirrels. Betty carries around the genetic memory of that encounter in every fiber of her being. As a result, no house in the neighborhood is better protected from squirrel trespass than ours. The squirrels steer clear when our Squirrel Sentinel is at her post.

Corn Kernel Console

Cousin Jeff like to keep the wild creatures in his neighborhood happy.  He’s got a hummingbird feeder, multiple birdseed dispensers, a suet cage — and this marble-topped table strewn with kernels of hard yellow corn.  It’s irresistible to squirrels chipmunks and large birds like crows.

It also makes the early morning hours a fun exercise.  When I sat outside yesterday morning, reading, every few minutes I would hear the drumbeat of tiny paws rushing along the deck, skittering up the table leg, and munching briskly at the corn.  It made the natural surroundings seem a little bit closer, and more real.

Avoiding The Squirrel Distraction

Sometimes it’s hard to really figure out what is happening in the country.  During the glitz and glimmer of a presidential campaign, the American public, and most of the news media, is like a dog in a yard, sniffing this and that and always ready to be distracted when a squirrel goes capering by.  That’s why we focus, briefly, on stories that appear for a day and then vanish into the mists of time.

imageUnderneath that surface glitz and glimmer and the ginned-up controversies it produces, however, is the serious stuff.  It’s the stuff that harder to follow, and more boring to read.  It’s the stuff that the talking head pundits on the “news” shows don’t want to address, because they probably don’t understand it themselves and because it can’t be reduced to a funny one-liner or a clever tweet.  From time to time, though, a real journalist will tackle the serious stuff and produce an article that serious people really should read if they want to get even a glimpse of the challenges that our country is facing.

Mary Williams Walsh of the New York Times wrote one such article recently, about the American public pension system — and how its liabilities are legally, but chronically, underreported.  Told in the context of one tiny pension plan, for California’s Citrus Pest Control District No. 2, the article relates how public pension funds keep two sets of books — one that is officially reported, and one that reflects the “market value” of the pensions and that is kept hidden from the public eye.  The officially reported numbers paint a much rosier picture than the latter.

And that’s where the real problem lurks.  For California’s Citrus Pest Control District No. 2, which covers only six people, the official books showed a large surplus.  The market value books, however, showed that the pension plan in fact had a deficit — and when the plan decided to convert itself to a 401(k) plan, Calpers, the giant California public employee retirement system, required the pension to make a totally unexpected, and large, payment to satisfy the market value of its liabilities.

The different bookkeeping is all about how the pension funds discount their future payments to present value.  It’s the concept of the time value of money — that a dollar today, which can be invested and earn a rate of return, is worth more than a dollar 10 years from now.  Future payments, like those made by pension plans, always get discounted to their present value.  The key issue, though, is what interest rate you use to do the discounting.  Using smaller, more conservative rates will show a higher present value of future payments, whereas using a higher, more aggressive rate will produce a much lower present value — and perhaps even show a surplus.

In the case of the Citrus Pest Control District, the officially reported present value was calculated using the assumed annual rate of return on investments — which is 7.5 percent.  Using that discount rate showed the little pension had a large surplus.  Of course, anybody who does any investing knows that a constant, 7.5 annual percent rate of return achieved over the course of decades of pension payments would be a fantastic rate of return.  Anybody who lives through the down markets of 2008 and 2009 also knows that it’s just not a realistic, long-term assumption.

The upshot is that we’ve got a serious problem in this country with public pension funds that are terribly underfunded.  One of these days, someone is going to have to pay the piper, as Citrus Pest Control District No. 2 did.  But at the presidential debate next week, will anyone ask Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump about this important issue, which could bankrupt many of our local government entities — or will we get questions about pneumonia, hydration or whether it was wise to use the word “bomb” before knowing that a bomb was in fact used in the New York City dumpster bombings?

Look, a squirrel!

Man Versus Squirrel

It was the squirrel Olympics at the Webner household this past weekend.  With a new bird feeder set out and freshly stocked with tasty birdseed, the conditions were perfect for a squirrel gluttony extravaganza.

The food attracted every squirrel in the immediate vicinity.  Soon our yard was swarming with squirrels, all of them eager to show off their amazing athletic abilities.  We had squirrels racing along the tops of fences.  We had bright-eyed squirrels somehow shinnying up the thin metal pole holding the bird feeder.  We had squirrels leaping from tree branch to tree branch to better observe the festivities.  And we had squirrels improbably long-jumping from patio chair to bird feeder pole and then daintily perching on the bird feeder, munching away at rapid-fire pace and stuffing their plump furry cheeks with as much birdseed as they could hold.

IMG_1128It was a pretty entertaining show — but of course the birdseed wasn’t put out for ravenous squirrels.  It was supposed to attract cardinals and song birds, and the squirrels were keeping them away from their intended grub.

What to do?  We didn’t want to hurt the squirrels, just make them stop eating the birdseed.  We went out into the yard and made noise, but the squirrels weren’t easily intimidated.  They knew they had a food bonanza, and they weren’t going to leave until you got very close to them — which is unnerving — and they came back as soon as you left.  We tried throwing pebbles at the bird feeder, but only a direct hit had any effect, and my aim isn’t very good.

So the only choice was to apply some intellectual brainpower to try to defeat the squirrel invasion.  It was clear that the squirrels needed to use the pole to reach the food.  How to prevent that?  We could have bought or built some kind of anti-squirrel cone, but given the awesome squirrel capabilities we were seeing I wasn’t sure how or where a cone should be placed.  But perhaps if the pole were rendered too slippery for the squirrels to grab a foothold?  I grabbed a can of non-stick spray for pots and pans, gave the pole a good coating, and voila!  The next squirrel that tried to climb the pole promptly fell onto its bushy-tailed keister, with a shocked look on its face.  So did the next, and the next — and then the squirrel invasion stopped.

Later that day, we saw a cardinal out on the bird feeder, having a nosh, and my heart welled with pride that raw intellectual firepower had defeated a gaggle of yard rodents.  In this chapter of the ongoing battle of man versus squirrel, man had prevailed.

On The Squirrel Superhighway

The bird feeder in our backyard broke, sending birdseed falling to the ground — and in the process turning our back fence into the German Village Squirrel Superhighway.  As I write this, no fewer than four squirrels are racing over the fence lines, romping through the backyard, twitching their tails, eating as much birdseed as they can stuff into their gluttonous buck-toothed mouths, and then skittering back up the trees that serve as the squirrel superhighway on and off ramps.

Squirrels are basically rats with tails, but they are industrious little buggers and fun to watch.  Hard-working and personally greedy, they are the prototypical capitalists of the animal kingdom.  When an opportunity presents itself, they are highly motivated to get their share and will do what they can to maximize their personal gain.

Now that I think of it, I’m surprised somebody hasn’t tried to tax them.

Squirrel And Carrot

IMG_6329With an abundance of trees, and lots of fences that serve as de facto elevated highways, the backyards in our German Village neighborhood are a squirrel’s paradise.  You see the bushy-tailed rodents scampering up and down trees, leaping from branch to branch, munching on nuts, and generally enjoying lives that seem like one big frolic.  And when one of the neighbors puts out fresh carrots for squirrels to enjoy, so much the better!

This little guy attacked a carrot that was about as long as he was with evident and territorial relish.  Apparently, squirrels really like carrots.

Kasey’s Favorite Movie Scene Ever

It’s safe to say that Kasey is somewhat attracted to squirrels.  If she spots one in the distance it is cause for all-out, head back, muzzle-raised baying, coupled with a quick dart in the squirrel’s general direction.  Once the end of the leash is reached, Kasey resorts to Iditarod-quality pulling, capable of out-hauling a Dodge Ram, toward where the squirrel was moments before — because, of course, the tree rodent is long gone by then.

It’s not surprising, then, that this is Kasey’s favorite movie scene of all time: