13 October 2008

Squirrel Nut Zippers

Squatting in front of a black plastic seed tray this past weekend, as I filled 24 finger deep holes with potting soil and the seeds of cilantro, collards, kales and lettuces, I kept hearing this strange “chuck chuck” noise above my head. I turned. The sound stopped.

I resumed my careful planting task, and the chucking resumed. I turned. The sound stopped. I saw no trace of the chatterer and chalked it up to a Widespread Panic hangover.

And then, it dawned on me that I was probably being berated by a squirrel, most likely of the eastern fox variety (Sciurus niger), tawny on the underside and (sometimes) cute.

This year, I’ve noticed an amazing wealth of squirrels zipping about the yard and bounding along the fence lines, almost always with a pecan held between their tiny jaws. They are on a furious (and frustrating mission) to (a) store and move their precious pecans, and (b) tear my yard to pieces in the process. At least they are leaving the house alone, thus far.

There are way more squirrels in my yard than I’ve seen in a long time. Perhaps there was a population spike after the critters were ferried here by kind citizens in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike? Maybe they are responding to a call from Austin’s spiritual squirrel vortex?

It’s more likely, though I don’t have any hard data, that last year’s rain and awesomely abundant pecan crop gave those squirrels some extra baby-making energy. And this year’s large population is an echo of that time of abundance.

It probably doesn’t hurt that there’s a lack of natural predators in the city, despite our occasional hawk. The neighborhood fat cats don’t do any good either. They’d probably share their food bowl with a squirrel if it didn’t give them too much trouble. No, I’m afraid the squirrels’ largest predator in the city is the car.

Surprisingly little research has been done on urban squirrels, but I did learn from Robert McCleery’s thesis at Texas A&M that fox squirrels in urban areas prefer live oaks over pines, bald cypress and arbor vitae. Live oaks, thank goodness, are in no short supply in our fine city.

McCleery also found that most city slicker squirrels die a quick, flat death by car tire. This is in contrast to their country kin who die the old-fashioned way, in the jaws of coyotes.

Anyway, the squirrels are driving me nuts this year. They're digging up my potted plants. They’ve dug little holes beside every single transplant I put in the veggie garden. They’ve nipped the tops off the fennel. When I plant seeds, they sneak through the hog wire cages and grub their noses down into the furrows and generally mess things up.

Now, don’t get me wrong, squirrels can be real cute—sprawled out on a tree branch trying to stay cool in the summer or perched with their question-mark tails nibbling on a nut—but this may be the only time I would have occasion to wish for more cars on the streets.

I hate to sound heartless, for I truly am an animal lover, but when you have a garden or a farm, it’s easy to feel that sense of competition with other creatures over common resources. Planters and plowers alike know the strange pleasure of squashing a caterpillar or decimating an aphid. And I think I can empathize just a little bit when ranchers feel threatened by wolves and coyotes.

Maybe that’s what that squirrel was thinking too as it saw me bent over my little plastic seed tray.

“Don’t you go putting your seedlings into my pecan garden,” it was thinking. “Back off, you silly industrious human. Chuck chuck.”


Annie in Austin said...

Squirrels and forests may make a team, but how can Squirrels and gardeners share anything but conflict - we have such divergent ideas of the ideal use of land ;-]

I don't even see pecans on my trees this year, Lee, and am still digging up seedlings from the nuts the squirrels planted last year. The Arizona Ash trees have made a bumper crop of seeds - sure hope the squirrels will eat them all immediately and not plant them!

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

vertie said...

I hear you. Oh, how I hear you.

Lancashire rose said...

We all have it in for the squirrels. I got so tired of following them around and filling in the holes that they made that they didn't use. Then I have oak trees growing in all my beds but none growing outside where the soil is rock hard. They like the easy life. I have very few pyracantha berries left because a squirrel has eaten all the seeds before they ripened. Food must be in short supply this year.

Annie in Austin said...

Lee, thinking about tree rats was so stressful that I forgot to say how cool it is to hum along with SNZ's "Winter Weather" in December....even if we're still wearing shorts and sandals.


Lee said...

Hey Annie, check it out:

Nice reference!

Annie in Austin said...

Just had a listen, Lee- thank you!


Bouncer said...

Squirrels are just rats with fluffy tails PR agents. If my dog had her way, every squirrel would be shaken off it's branch and torn to bits the second it hit the ground. But despite living in a neighborhood with an abundance of huge old trees, I rarely see a squirrel. That's because I have a neighbor who likes to sit on his back porch with a high-powered BB gun, killing as many squirrels as he can. He's not even a gardener! He claims they chew through the phone/cable/electric wires on his house, but I think he he just kills them because he's a freak. I don't like finding dead (and especially the not-quite-dead) rodents in my back yard, but reading your post makes me think this killing freak neighbor of mine could be a blessing in disguise.

gavriella in ga said...

There is a organic fertiliser that, when you put it down, squirrels and chipmunks hate the smell and will not bury their goods in the garden bed where it has been sprinkled. You can even use it on your grass to stop them from digging it up. It is called Millorganite. Here is a link http://www.milorganite.com/. I would not be able to have any plants because they would be dug up by little critters w/o this product...
Your think you have it bad with the wildlife in Austen, you should try to garden in Atlanta, Ga!

Lee said...

thanks for the tip Gavriella! i'll have to look into that.

Susan Tomlinson said...

I notice that the squirrel population in my backyard waxes and wanes with how much my pecan trees are producing. In a year that follow a spare crop of pecans, I have fewer squirrels, and vice versa. This year I have a bumper crop, so I expect more squirrels (and fewer pecans) next year.

I have, in some astonishing/alarming years, counted as many as thirty squirrels in a single pecan tree...