OPINION

Wildlife Welcome Mat is Out – Most of the Time

Steve Lekwa

Fox squirrels are fun to watch and I don’t begrudge them some of the seed that my feathered friends wastefully drop off the elevated feeders. They weren’t satisfied with that arrangement this year, though. One of them shinnied down a wire that suspended a plastic tube feeder full of expensive cracked sunflower hearts from our apple tree. A finch’s bill can pry seed bits from the little holes, but they’re too small for squirrels to get their toes into to drag our more seed. The squirrels adapted by hanging upside down and gnawing on the plastic. First the plastic perch pegs disappeared. Those were replaced with metal bolts. They couldn’t chew those off, but instead began chewing through the plastic side of the feeder to make the holes bigger, ruining the feeder. I replaced the feeder with a new one and added a clear plastic dome that fit over the top of the feeder to make it more difficult for squirrels to get to and to help keep the seed dry in rain storms. They got past the dome in only a couple of days, but I caught them at it before they did much damage. The only option was to move the feeder to a post out in the open, with a squirrel baffle cone that effectively prevents them from climbing to the feeders.

People usually react to chipmunks much like they would a very cute, but mischievous, little child. Their busy antics make you smile. I used to think that chipmunks were tamer than most wild creatures, but I have come to think of it more like having a brazen attitude in recent years. Like that mischievous child, they will continue to pursue their mischief, even when being watched. Chipmunks are habitual storers of food and have no concept of “enough.” They’ll keep stuffing their cheeks and hauling away bird seed all day if they can get at it. That’s why I limit the amount of mixed seed I spread on the deck to only a small cup each day. Doves and chipping sparrows get part of it, as do the chipmunks. When their usual underground storage sites fill up, they try to store more seed by burying it in my flower pots. It’s bad enough that they dig up some nice flowers in the process, but some of that buried seed sprouts. Clusters of sunflower seedlings don’t look good growing up through a poinsettia or among my rain lily bulbs. The little rascals are in my garage all the time, too, and seem to know within minutes if I have failed to secure the lid on a plastic bucket where I store bird seeds. My brother renamed them chipmonsters after they plugged his foundation drains with walnuts and acorns. Nor was it enough to just fill up the space. They chewed through the plastic tile, too, forcing an expensive digging up and replacement of the whole system.

I planted some bright little crocus bulbs many years ago. They have grown well, but rabbits always eat the flowers as soon as they bloom in early spring. They seldom bothered other flowers, though, and chicken wire fencing has done a good job of keeping them out of the garden plots. This year, for the first time in the 25 years we’ve live here, the rabbits have attacked my lilies. They should be three feet tall, with beautiful orange blooms right now, but most of them are stubs only a few inches high. They’ve never bothered snapdragons, either, but this year the rabbits ate every single snapdragon bloom spike. They’ll bloom again, but it appears that I’ll have to start using rabbit repellent on a regular basis.

Raccoons patrol the neighborhood every night. They wrecked my hummingbird feeders a few years ago when they discovered how tasty the sugar water inside was. The feeders had been up on the deck where we could watch them easily. The new feeders were relocated to a more coon-resistant site a little farther away. Raccoons come to think of bird boxes as lunch boxes if they can climb to them and are notorious nest robbers. My bluebird boxes are on coon-resistant posts. Note that I say “resistant” and not “coon-proof.” Very little is coon-proof short of a locked bank vault. Coons have never bothered my wren boxes until this year, though. They climbed a fence, opened a box and ate up a family of baby wrens a couple of days ago. The adults are still around and have already started building a new nest in a chickadee box. That box has a more secure closure system that should keep coons out for at least awhile.

House wrens are aggressive competitors for nest space, too, and make life more difficult for cavity nesting neighbors. They won’t kill other birds like house sparrows or starlings sometimes do, but they will pierce bluebird eggs and try to build their stick nests right on top of the destroyed bluebird nest. The wrens pierced one of the four bluebird eggs in our back yard box a couple of weeks ago and pitched it out of the nest. The bluebirds successfully defended their nest, though, and hatched the other three. Those babies should fledge later this week.

I love having wildlife around, but the behavior of few species challenges my patience at times. Wild creatures survive by serving their own needs, even when that interferes with the lives of their wild and human neighbors. It’s challenging and usually fun to help them live in harmony with each other and with me.

Steve Lekwa is the former director of Story County Conservation.