Backyard social ecology
Sherry and I have six bird feeders around the yard. We started with one, then we kept adding. We feed them seed and suet. We discovered early that almost every bird that hangs around here likes black (sunflower) oilseed, which is good, because when you buy bulk it’s fairly cheap. The local seed store sold fifty-pound bags for $18, but it closed,then I found out Tractor Supply sells forty-pound bags for $16. It went up from $14 since the pandemic, and the quality has fallen (more trash per pound). I keep the big fiber-and-plastic bags, which I open up into sheets that I use with mulch to suppress growth in certain areas. The macroeconomics of bird feeders.
Anyone with feeders knows that other species show up to share in the banquet: squirrels (we have both fox squirrels and red squirrels), chipmunks, and rabbits. In addition to the feeders, we have two thickets, and I’ve used light deadfall from the elms around the house to stack up a couple of “live fences,” that is, a throw-together lattice of wood that climber/vine plants cover with green in the spring, summer, and autumn. This gives the hordes of birds as well as the small mammals plenty of cover. We have, in a sense, urbanized our animals, concentrated them in one place around an artificial concentration of food and a constructed habitat.
This animal-urbanization, in turn, attracts the local sharp-shinned and Coopers hawks, as well as feral cats. The feral cats, by the way, have never allowed a bunny to grow up here, which is okay in terms of growing vegetables. If the cats could only eat deer, too (they come up into the yard from the nearby river), I might be able to plant more veggies.
When hawks show up, two things happen. The feeders go silent as everyone shelters, and the local crows show up. The crows hate hawks and harass them unmercifully until they fly away in frustration and defeat. Even so, the hawks catch a squirrel now and again, and they harvest a few sparrows. Our very own apex predators.
One has to be careful when urbanizing animals. We have a slow-drippy outdoor hose faucet in the back, and I’d put a five-gallon bucket under it to prevent the water seeping into the clay subsoil next to the house (this can create foundation problems if you have a basement). One day, Sherry was horrified to find three chipmunks who’d somehow fallen into the bucket and drowned. Yeah, those unintended consequences.
The animals have grown quite comfortable around us. They still maintain a distance most times, though I’ve been accidentally bitten feeding one squirrel by hand, and I’ve had goldfinches and chickadees land on me when I was lounging outside. Would this familiarity serve them well outside their “urban” environment? Probably not.
The squirrels are ravenous, extremely agile, and about twice as smart as my Congressman. Every trick I’ve used, short of a $60 pole and baffle set-up, they’ve defeated. The fox squirrels can jump about ten feet laterally and — as I’ve observed — about five feet vertically. Even the tiny red squirrels can leap between trees eight feet apart and nail the landings. Any time I’ve changed up on them with feeders, you could see them working it all out. Seriously, they sit there looking at the latest New Thing, then try various tactics to get back on the feeder until they succeed. They are absolutely tenacious.
When I do a refill, which takes around four gallons of seed and three suet bars, the birds and squirrels — who know the routine — perch nearby and watch, waiting. The Big Thing that lives in that Big Box Tree is bringing the manna. I always put four little piles of seed on the ground so the squirrels — who always go for the easy stuff first — eat the ground seed while the birds get an open shot at the feeders for a while. Small compromises.
There is conflict. Dominant squirrels chase off the more timid. The little red squirrels are total badasses, and will take on the fox squirrels who are like five times bigger. I’ve seen a flicker on the suet stab at a sparrow with its beak — which in bird terms is like a Roman pilum spear. Most combat is ritual. Two horny male squirrels will, however, occasionally wrap around each other in brief knock-down-drag-outs, spinning, tumbling, scratching, and biting until one gives way and runs off in humiliation. Even with the pecking orders, though — pun totally intended — the urbanized animals generally get along and work things out for themselves. Backyard subsidiarity based on backyard abundance.
There’s a lot of talk among the animals. Bird chatter can be broken down into several categories, the predominant ones being (1) get away from me dammit, (2) I’m here y’all, (3) something bad is coming, hide, (4) I just wanna make lo-o-o-o-ove to you, and (5) haha, I’m doing impressions of another species. The squirrels chirp and bark, and they’ll fuss out Sherry or me over grievances we don’t ever quite understand. It’s a complex semiosphere, where signing — as in all cities — is essential to order and stability.
Ever so often, the squirrels get sick. We’ve not only concentrated them unnaturally, they’ve made babies here, so we’ve been through multiple generations — more concentration. When some mange-like skin disease or wasting disorder shows up, it makes the rounds. I’m sure this applies to birds, too, but it’s harder to tell.
We recognize the individual squirrels and we’ve even named a few. The most legendary was Psycho, whose was more black than red (unusual, but not unheard of among fox squirrels), and he’d lost half his tail in some adventure. Psycho was a total curmudgeon with so much moxie that he struck fear into the rest of the squirrels, and he would even make occasional threat displays at Sherry and me. A juvenile sharp-shinned hawk grabbed him once as we watched in horror, whereupon Psycho bit and clawed his way loose, dropping about ten feet to the ground. The hawk came at Psycho again, and again Psycho fought his way loose. And again. And again. Finally, the hawk flew over to a six foot fence in the park behind our house and perched there, chagrined by Psycho’s resistance. Psycho stood there looking at the hawk on the fence for a few moments, then something snapped. He ran straight to the fence and scaled it, right at the hawk — like a Kamikaze Rodent — and the hawk said, “Fuck this,” and flew away in shame.
Psycho eventually succumbed to one of those wasting diseases. We still spot some of his offspring. They have black highlights in their fur and plenty of attitude.
Our animals are dependent and don’t know it. Dependency is a concept, and the critters deal in concrete particulars. In the spring, summer, and autumn, there are alternative sources of food. We live very near the River Raisin. In winter, though, they depend on us for most of their caloric intake. This is magnified when there’s snow cover. Our feed bills jump in the cold to compensate for this seasonal scarcity. If we ever move, we’ll need to cut back prior to our departure until the creatures can adjust their habits and spread back out.
I’m looking forward to summer. I have a hammock, and I like to use it. I can get quiet for about ten minutes, and all the animals get close and comfortable, keeping me company while I watch time unfold in the sky.