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Posts Tagged ‘Squirrel’

When the call came in that a spruce tree was ailing in a way that baffled the local nursery, I was intrigued.  Garden center staff see a lot of strange plant things, and in order to stump them, the problem is usually a puzzler.

Any time a tree behaves badly I rush out to see it, like an ambulance chaser following a crew armed with chainsaws and chippers.  To avoid the disappointment of arriving to find the tree is normal, I’ve learned to ask for a description of the problem over the phone first.

“It defies description,” said the kind man on the other end of the line, “I honestly don’t know where to begin.”  Now, normally people have no trouble putting their plant’s distress into words, usually relying on such phrases as “bugs are eating my tree,” “weird oozing,” or the popular “I just woke up this morning and it was dead.” 

Here was a man who was speechless to describe it, and because he was referred to me by the nurseryman, I drove over.

 That nurseryman was right; one had to see this to believe it.  Under a mature spruce tree, thousands of small twigs littered the ground, falling from a tree towering more than 30-feet tall.  They were short tips of the branches, still green and succulent with life, covering the ground and lower branches.

The rain of twigs had been happening since mid-December, and to keep up with it, the couple had been sweeping up the twigs, collecting bushels full to take to the tree mulching yard.

I did the reconnaissance a tree diagnostician should do when coming upon a new patient – stood back and looked at the tree.  There were no obvious signs of stress – it looked healthy, top to bottom.  Stepping closer, the twigs scattered across the ground showed no signs of insects or disease.  But there was one, odd thing: A pattern to the cut ends.  They were all clipped at an angle. 

I’d seen this before, just not on such a large scale.  That angle was familiar, and slowly my eyes lifted to the fence line, upon which two squirrels were sitting and giving me the stink eye.  “You’ve got squirrels,” I said, “nipping your branches.”

Squirrels will do this, in winter or spring when food is hard to find.  They also do it at random times of the summer too, for no apparent reason.  Some foresters have suggested boredom.  And because the squirrels aren’t stripping the bark or eating the wood, I believe them.

There’s nothing to be done to stop the problem, but the good news it that the tree will be fine.  Although the damage seems alarming, a healthy tree can take a bit of twig loss.  If you find your tree suddenly losing its tips, check the discards closely for the tell-tale angled cut; if you find it, you’ll know it’s those squirrels, and not a disease.

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

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Today’s post can be heard on the public radio show Crop to Cuisine, hosted by Dov Hirsch.

Crop To Cuisine

These days, feeding the birds is like running a dining establishment.  The right menu must be offered with unique selections, or birds just won’t come.  You can’t possibly serve a mixed kernel ‘hash’ to the fussy feathered flock; to be successful you must serve only the finest and freshest seed for discerning avian tastes. 

Although birds eat like trolls, gobbling food quickly and conducting loud family quarrels, they’re more judgmental about food than any critic.  After all, critics don’t usually throw what they dislike off onto the floor. 

Seed is specialized to feed very specific species, no doubt due to modern birds turning their beaks up at blends that lack a nice chew.  Simple, filling fare is out.  Like great waiters, staff at local bird feeding bistros can help you make the right selection for finicky eaters.

Thistle is excellent for smaller birds, especially finches, juncos and sparrows.  They find the crisp crack of the husk absolutely delightful.  Others prefer the rich, earthy flavor of sunflowers (black oil and striped) along with safflower and white millet.  Separate feeders serving each type of feed will bring a variety of birds to the backyard.

Having grackles arrive is like watching a busy evening at a trendy eatery.  They’re loud, the feeder is crowded, and quieter birds just try to dine and flee.  You might as well be serving Rocky Mountain Oysters and beer, they way grackles go at it.  Should you wish to give the less raucous birds a chance, feed safflower seeds.  The big grackles don’t like it and will move on.

One essential menu item is suet.  Like a decadent slice of pie, suet is pure fat (with some seed), providing high energy in winter when birds need lots of calories to keep warm.  Glazed with fruit or studded with insects, make suet a signature dish to attract woodpeckers or chickadees.

Appealing bird establishments will offer both water and food.  Sources of water are critical to birds in winter for drinking, but birds bathe in it as well.  I don’t recall that the latest craze in restaurants includes a bath with the meal.  Still, baths are important to birds’ ability to stay warm.  Break the ice each day and keep fresh water in the basin.

There’s no talking bird feeding unless you include squirrels.  I’ve never seen such enthusiastic eaters.   Squirrels launch themselves bodily at their food, something I’ve observed people do at an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Because they jump high (to 6 feet) and wide – up to 10 feet – feeders are always under attack. 

 I admit I draw the line at feeding squirrels.  They annoy me, mostly because I have one in my yard that I believe is planning my demise.  At least, that’s what I think it’s plotting every time I see him staring intently at me while gnawing a decorative deer antler down to a lethal point.

This is probably the squirrel’s revenge for my finding the solution to their feeder raiding.   A hanging baffle half way up the feeder pole stops them cold, provided the pole is located eleven feed from the nearest launch pad. 

There’s a wide selection of seed and feeding stations available for the backyard birder.  This is because not all birds prefer their food vertical.  Some like their seed spread out on a platform so they may experience their food with both beak and feet.  They also glean the ground for seed and especially love sunflower or millet. 

Inevitably, there will be spillage from the feeders onto ground underneath.  To prevent seeds from sprouting and growing plants no one recognizes, try the partially steamed mix that has been heated to stop germination.

Despite the effort going into food selection, feeding birds in winter is sure to add life to the garden.  Just don’t take their criticism personally.

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