There has always been something about the change in seasons, something that has stirred me to make changes in my life. I was married in winter and divorced in the spring, started a new job in fall and quit in the summer. That’s probably why it was in the beginning of winter when I decided that I had finally had enough of New York City life–a cold studio apartment on the top floor of a four-story walk-up, noisy neighbors, blaring stereos, dog poop on the sidewalk–and exchanged my triple-security-lock-steel-door fortress for a modest place in the country.
It was extremely cold when I moved into my house. Ice storms had turned everything into rock candy. Eerily-plastic trees rattled in the wind and the birds, too dumb or too numb for the trip South, landed in the branches and slipped head first into the frozen ground. Their tiny feet, blue from the cold, protruded from the snowdrifts like miniature trees. From the warmth and security behind my double-paned insulated window I watched them, huddled in small groups, rubbing their wings together to keep warm and hopping up and down to avoid frostbite. It was a pathetic sight.
Driven by my desire to save the environment and a steady diet of National Geographic specials I’d seen on PBS, I fashioned a makeshift birdfeeder from a plastic deli container filled with breadcrumbs and Rice Crispies, climbed on the top of the wooden fence and fastened the feeder to a sturdy maple branch just outside my kitchen window. Then for an hour I watched the birds feast on my generous bounty, a marvelous sight, better than anything I’d seen Channel 21.
The next morning on my way to work I picked up fifty pounds of millet from the local hardware store and two books on bird watching and bird feeding tips: a hundred dollar investment to preserve the planet. In the evening, when I pulled up the driveway, I found my improvised feeding station on the frozen ground. I knew from my new bird books there weren’t any condors or bald eagles in the area, and from the birds I had seen in the neighborhood, I knew they weren’t heavy enough to snap the string, unless, of course, they all piled on together and jumped. I replaced the string and filled the container with some of the millet while six purple finches, two grackles and a chickadee eyed me suspiciously from the trees. A short time later, nursing a bourbon-and-water, I watched the birds glut themselves, until their feeding frenzy made me hungry and I retired for my own dinner. But later, as I was washing the last of the supper dishes, I peered through the collected darkness only to discover that the feeder was down again!
“Just what’s going on here?” I called from my back door into the cold night. The drapes in my neighbor’s house parted. Curious faces pressed against the glass making vapor impressions on the cold glass, and eyes followed me in the darkness.
My fingers were freezing and already numb as I pulled myself onto the old wooden fence that complained under my weight and I caught my pants leg on a picket. I wondered if St. Francis of Assisi had started this way. It was my last thought before I crashed head first into the chunky snow.
In the morning, black and blue and bruised from my previous night’s fall, I painfully mounted the fence again. This time I tied the deli container with galvanized wire, strong enough to hold a fifty-pound canary as my neighbors watched me through their window.
In the late afternoon I raced home as fast as the frozen roads would allow and hurried to inspect my birdfeeder. It was intact! But rooted to the fork of the tree, gripping the container in one paw and dipping the other into the millet was a gray squirrel. The birds were all around him carping and squawking, and I added my voice to the din. I tapped a frantic staccato on the glass, but the squirrel barely paused long enough to regard me over his shoulder with disdain. There was such arrogance in his eyes, such contempt, and then he went back to helping himself to my millet.
“Oh yeah!” I shouted through the glass. I could have shot him if I had a gun. I hunted for something to throw, but all I managed to find was a bundle of rubber bands. Outside I shook my clenched fist at him. “You get down from there, you dirty rat!” I shouted and fired an ineffectual barrage of rubber bands off the end of my finger.
My neighbors came outside to watch the show.
The squirrel moved off, not in fear, but rather in annoyance, after hurling what I interpreted to be an obscene squirrel gesture in my general direction. I stretched my last remaining rubber band and aimed at his retreating rump, but the elastic broke, recoiled and caught me under the eye.
“You got troubles,” my neighbor called. It was the first human contact I’d had with anyone since I’d moved into the house. “A squirrel decides to stay, you can’t get rid of him no matter how hard you try. Out-smart you every time. And this one’s a real smart one.”
“Oh yeah!” I felt the welt under my eye. “I’m a college graduate!” I called back. “What do you think of that?”
“Tell it to the squirrel,” he said simply.
I didn’t go to work the next day. Instead I called in “sick” and bought a squirrel-resistant birdfeeder. The salesman said is was “guaranteed to discourage unwanted pests.” It cost me another eighty-nine bucks plus tax, but I didn’t care. This was war and I was going to prove something to that squirrel, and to my new neighbors.
When I hung the new feeder I had an audience. My neighbor, his wife and two kids watched from the perimeter of their property. The birds were interested too. And squatting serenely in a branch just out of firing range, the squirrel was grinning at me.
“You might as well toss your money down the sewer. Those squirrel resistant feeders never work,” my neighbor called. “It would be easier and cheaper in the long run just to feed him. Won’t take him long to figure out. Squirrels can read you know.”
I smiled graciously, tipped my woolen winter hat to his wife, and hurried back inside to the warmth. They were all tittering behind my back – neighbors, birds and squirrel.
As soon as I was gone the squirrel came down to check things out. Through the window I watched as he circled the feeder a couple of times and then went directly to where it was attached to the branch. Quickly he grabbed the wire in his paw and slid backwards down the tree, pulling in the feeder as he went. In another second he was munching my millet with complete abandon! I pounded the window with my fist. The squirrel spit the last remains of a sunflower seed that would have hit me in the eye if not for the window glass.
“Told you so,” my neighbor said as I came out in time to watch the squirrel’s retreat.
But I didn’t want to hear it. I vaulted onto the fence in two quick strides, pulled the feeder from the tree and carried everything back into the house.
In the morning I called in sick again and I spent the whole day hatching plans. By noon an idea occurred to me. It was so simple – if I straightened a metal clothes hanger and fastened it to the branch, then attached the galvanized wire and the feeder to the end of the hanger, when the squirrel grabbed the hanger and pulled it in, the suspended feeder would hang free and remain out of his reach. In theory it couldn’t fail. But as a second precaution, in case my neighbor was right, I taped a message to the feeder. I lettered the words carefully: “BIRDFEEDER! NOT FOR SQUIRRELS!” If that squirrel could read he’d get my message.
“Good afternoon,” I said to my neighbors on my way back from the tree, but they just stared silently at me with amused grins.
When the squirrel didn’t show up after an hour, I showered leisurely and shaved. Upon my return to the kitchen window, towel wrapped around my wet hair, I discovered the empty feeder swinging in the breeze. I ran outside to investigate, my damp body steaming in the cold air.
“What happened?” I demanded from my neighbors who were reading my note no longer attached to the feeder.
“Did you miss it? It all happened so fast. That squirrel grabbed your contraption and swung it like a trapeze. Caught the feeder with one hand when it swung back, ate some, then dumped the rest. He read your note too, before he sent it into the breeze. You got a real smart squirrel there.” Their four heads bobbed up and down in unison.
I snatched my note out of his hand. My head was spinning, my face hot and my throat sore.
The next morning I was truly sick. I had all the symptoms of the flu. But during the night, in the feverish delirium of my dreams, the solution had crystallized. Bundled in a sweater, overcoat and fur hat, I made my final trip up the fence. I pulled everything down, discarded the hanger and I rested. The exertion had exhausted me utterly.
“Decided to give it up, did you?” my neighbor called. “Smartest thing you’ve done yet.”
I paid him no attention. Instead I looped a new length of wire to the top of the feeder and tied it to the branch. Then from my pocket I took a small threaded eyehook and twisted it into the fence directly below the feeder. Next I tied another piece of wire to the bottom of the feeder and secured that to the eyehook on the fence. The feeder was anchored from both ends, totally immobilized!
Inside, in the warmth of the house I sipped tea with honey and lemon, and I waited. When the squirrel arrived my heart was pounding more than my head. He studied the situation and tugged on the wire, but the secured feeder didn’t move. The squirrel’s tail vibrated frantically as he appraised this new situation. He examined the brass eyehook and the wire, tested the anchor, pulling it with both paws, and biting it with his teeth. The wire was too thin to climb and too strong to break. Over and over the squirrel circled the feeder from top to bottom. He was stumped, defeated. I had won!
I couldn’t resist. I tapped my fingers gently on the windowpane until I had his complete attention. His squirrel face was a furrowed frown — mine was a broad smile. When our eyes met I held my hand against the window in a gesture I was sure he understood.
The squirrel left the tree, dejected, crushed.
I rushed outside to savor my success. I danced a little jig under the tree, throwing up my arms and legs with reckless abandon, my overcoat flung open, my hat forgotten on the kitchen table. There was a light snow falling. I shouted for my neighbors to hear, “I won! I won! I won!” It became a chant, a taunt hurled into their grinning teeth.
“Just wait until spring,” he countered. “Squirrels have better memories than elephants. The war isn’t over yet.”
His words were enough to slow me down in my dance, just a bit. Perspiration trickled down my face. I felt dizzy, light-headed, but I picked up the tempo again. I circled and kicked until my body was soaked with wet. And then I fell faint into the snow.
My neighbors brought me to the hospital, where I spent the next five weeks recovering from pneumonia. They came to visit me there almost every day, and later, when I returned home they brought me magazines and chicken soup, crossword puzzles and chewing gum. They were really very nice people.
The seasons have changed. It is springtime now. The buds have formed on all the trees, and I’m feeling stronger. I can see my neighbors from my window getting their garden ready. The squirrels are there, too, gangs of them, in the trees and at the corners of my property. I know that they are watching me and waiting, formulating their little rodent strategies. I have decided to put my house up for sale, and take my chances once again with the city.
Joseph Scalia has published 2 novels, FREAKs and Pearl, and 2 short story collections, No Strings Attached and Brooklyn Family Scenes. “Squirrel in the Bird Feeder” is from his latest book, Scalia vs. The Universe or: My Life and Hard Times, a collection of humor to be published in 2009.