The Squirrel’s Favorite Holiday

I’m guessing that squirrels prefer Halloween and Thanksgiving over all other holidays. That’s because squirrels have a taste for pumpkin — especially older, softer pumpkin. Over the last few days, the little fellow shown in the photo above and his furry pals have been ravenously devouring the pumpkins that were placed at Schiller Park as decorations. I’m not sure if the squirrels gnaw through the shell to get at the pumpkin seeds, or whether they like the inner flesh, but this guy was stuffing himself to get ready for the winter in that inimitable, hyper-alert, squirrel-like way.

If you’ve got pumpkins and want to be environmentally sensitive about disposing of them, put them out in your back yard where your neighborhood squirrels can get at them. They’ll thank you, and take care of recycling.

The Squirrel Game

Yesterday morning I took a double lap around Schiller Park.  It was a bright, sunny morning, and lots of neighborhood dogs had brought their human pals to the park for a romp through the bright green grass.  Many of the dogs were off the leash.  That meant I got to watch some of the Squirrel Game.

For those not familiar with it, the Squirrel Game is played at Schiller Park on any sunny day.  The contestants are dogs and squirrels.  The squirrels venture out onto the grass.  The dogs see the squirrels and then take off in hopes of actually catching one of the furry critters.  The squirrels see the dogs coming and easily make it back to the safety of the trees, sit on a tree branch, and then taunt the dogs with a death stare like you might see in the NBA after one player posterizes another with a particularly nasty dunk.  

I would be willing to bet that, in the  storied history of Schiller Park, no dog has ever actually caught a healthy adult squirrel.  Nevertheless, their DNA compels the canines to keep trying, not matter what — which makes the Squirrel Game pretty entertaining to watch.  In fact, with people suffering from severe sports deprivation these days, what if there were a live broadcast of the Squirrel Game to help fans try to scratch that sports itch?

Play-by-play announcer:  Welcome to Schiller Park in Columbus, Ohio, for week three of the Squirrel Game!  It’s a beautiful day for squirrel chasing, and we’ve got a full slate of contestants ready to engage in a fruitless interspecies exercise.  Jim, do you think that this just might be the week where a dog actually catches a squirrel?

Color guy:  Not a chance, Frank!  But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a bunch of representatives of man’s best friend who don’t believe that this will definitely be the day when they actually catch a squirrel, and they are willing to run themselves into panting exhaustion in hopes that their dreams will be realized.

Play-by-play announcer:  Well, hope springs eternal!  And we’ve got our first contestants ready to go.  Bosco and Skippy have moved away from their tree out onto the grass, and Missy, an overly groomed Shih Tzu wearing an embarrassing pink bow in her fur, has just been let off the leash by her human.

Color guy:  Our audience will remember Bosco, of course.  Like every squirrel in the park, he’s never been caught or even put into remote physical peril by the neighborhood dogs, but Bosco is a crowd favorite because of his exceptional taunting moves.  He’s been training Skippy, so we’ll get a chance to see how that is going.

Play-by-play announcer:  The squirrels have moved pretty far away from their tree to give Missy extra hope.  Bosco has dug up some kind of nut and is munching away on it, while Skippy is twitching her tail, hoping to attract Missy’s attention.  That’s one of Bosco’s patented moves, and it looks like Skippy has mastered it.  Wait a minute — I think Missy has seen them!  Yes, and she’s taken off!  Here we go!

Color guy:  Really bad form by Missy, Frank!  She’s started running much too early, and she’s not very fast, anyway.  You’d think dogs would have learned by now that if you really want to catch a squirrel, you need to sneak up on them.

Play-by-play announcer:  Well, they are dogs, Jim.

Color guy:  Yes, they are, which is why they never have a chance but still happily try.  Bosco and Skippy have noticed Missy heading their way, and Bosco is calmly taking a few extra nibbles on that nut and waiting until the last minute, giving Missy even more hope that this might actually be the day that she catches a squirrel.  And Missy has taken the bait, and is running at top speed.  Look at that pink ribbon fly!

Play-by-play announcer:  That’s why Bosco is one of the true all-stars.  He always gives the dogs hope before crushing their expectations like a discarded soda can.

Color guy:  You’re right of course, Frank!  And now Bosco and Skippy are engaging in some very nifty broken-field running to get back to their tree.  Some great moves from the savvy veteran and the rookie there!

Play-by-play announcer:  They’ve easily made it to the tree, leaving Missy back in the dust.  And now Missy has finally reached the tree trunk and is yapping and acting like she’s protected the human world from the scourge of the squirrel menace.

Color guy:  You’ve got to give Missy credit for trying to put a happy face on a pretty dismal effort, Frank!  She didn’t even come close, not by a long shot, but her posturing and irritating yapping shows she’s a real pro.  

Play-by-play announcer:  Bosco has caught Missy’s attention again, and is giving her that famous Bosco stare.  Jim, I’ve seen it countless times, and it still gives me chills.  And wait, Skippy is joining in!  A double stare!  And now Bosco is going back to munching on that nut, showing Missy and our viewing audience that he is totally undisturbed by the entire episode.  You’ve got to give him credit for showmanship!

Color guy:  Of course, Missy doesn’t realize she’s been dissed.  Being a dog, she’s pretty much oblivious to everything except the chase.  And now she’s trotting back to her human with a very self-satisfied air, having seemingly forgotten Bosco, Skippy and the entire embarrassing episode.

Play-by-play announcer:  Time for a commercial break.  When we return, we’ll be seeing Shultzie, a morbidly obese dachshund, try to catch Tinkles, a fan favorite with a white streak in her tail.

Color guy:  Ha ha!  I love to watch fat dachshunds try to run.  Don’t miss it, folks! 

Spring Break 2020 — V

 

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Today Kish and I decided to get in touch with nature at our spring break destination.  And what better way to do so that to take a nature hike and try to get a glimpse of the elusive local wildlife?

These cute critters are hard to find, and almost as camera-shy as the mythical Sasquatch.  Fortunately, some careful hunting allowed us to take a rare photo of this species, which typically tries to avoid any and all human contact.  After luring this plump little fellow with an acorn, we were treated to the pleasant spectacle of him cavorting and gamboling in the virgin wilderness with his furry tailed friends.  This must have been what life was like back when this area was not despoiled by resort developments and the depredations of modern civilization!

We’ll always treasure the photo of this friend in the forest and look forward to sharing it with our friends when we return home after this year’s wonderful spring break.

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:

Growing Ancient Fruit, Thanks To Our Friends The Squirrels

Scientists in Siberia have discovered and grown ancient fruit — thanks to some Arctic ground squirrels that lived thousands of years before the end of the last Ice Age.

The squirrels had stashed the fruit in their burrows dug deep into the permafrost.  The fruit quickly froze and has remained frozen for 30,000 years.  The squirrel burrows were left undisturbed and were apparently discovered by people looking for the remains of mammoths and other Ice Age creatures.  Scientists took the frozen fruit and, using advanced techniques, have been able to grow plants from the fruit remains — making the fruit, from a plant called Silene Stenophylla, by far the oldest plant material brought back to life after an extended period of dormancy.  The discovery gives scientists hope that they might be able to find, and revive, the frozen remains of extinct Arctic region plants.

Who knows what happened to the squirrels that originally stashed the fruit?  Perhaps they were eaten by a stray saber-tooth tiger or some other Ice Age predator.  But their pack-rat storage habits have allowed scientists to bring an ancient plant back to life — and have given new meaning to the notion of squirreling things away.

Squirrel Superheroes

I was surprised to see this article about squirrels being horrible pests, because in our backyard the squirrels are a source of significant entertainment and, frankly, some pride.

My experience with our backyard squirrels began when I decided to try to keep our bird feeders stocked with bird seed this year. We have two curved iron poles on which we hang the bird feeders under one of our trees.
It quickly became apparent that the bird seed I was putting out was, in part, ending up as squirrel food instead, because we easily had the most well-fed squirrels in the neighborhood. One Saturday I decided to watch the feeders to determine, first hand, what was happening. Sure enough, within minutes after I filled the feeders and left the backyard a stout squirrel appeared. After sniffing around and carefully analyzing how to get to the seeds in the feeder, this animal Spiderman shinnied quickly up the four-foot wrought iron pole, clutched the pole with three paws, and batted the feeder with his free front paw, knocking seeds to the ground and alarming the birds nearby. Then he dropped quickly to the ground and vacuumed up the seeds that were of particular interest. In the meantime a portly fellow squirrel strolled out onto the branch about two feet above our other bird feeder, hurled himself deftly on top of it, knocked still more seeds to the ground, and then leaped back up to the branch and scampered down to the ground to claim his reward. My backyard squirrels, like the redoubtable Twiggy in the YouTube video above, clearly would be fully capable of waterskiing and, probably, leaping over a few barrels and through a flaming hoop of fire in the process.

My original idea this summer was to provide some seeds that would bring colorful songbirds to our backyard. That has happened, but I’ve also attracted my squirrel friends and encouraged their hard work in the process. I’ve been impressed and am not going to begrudge them a sunflower seed or two.