If you can't beat them, feed them peanuts

Last month I threw out the last bird feeder. It had been destroyed beyond repair. No sense calling a handyman: I'm sure I could feed birds for a year for what it'd cost to devise something squirrel-proof - if there is such a thing.

But through four wonderful New England seasons, a variety of birds have come to depend on seed daily, and I don't have the heart or desire to send them elsewhere. So now I dribble seed along my deck railing - birds love to perch there anyway. The squirrels, of course are delighted. They no longer need to take risky flying leaps, grapple with feeders, or hang by their toes.

One morning I looked out my kitchen window and observed a squirrel splayed on his belly atop the railing like a surfer paddling his board. "You certainly seem to feel at home," I mumbled. He looked awfully cute, with his healthy chestnut-brown coat and bushy tail; a young squirrel in his first summer, perhaps.

So on the next trip to the nature store, I glanced at a bag of peanuts, packaged for people like myself who have given in. I plopped down $7.29. "He'll have to sing for his supper," I resolved.

That afternoon I spied him on the deck and grabbed a peanut. The other squirrels fled, but this little guy hung around. I cautiously placed the nut on the railing six feet from him and stepped back. He was ecstatic. He grabbed it and ran for - I presumed - his tree, to tuck it away.

Moments later, he returned. OK, one more. I came out with a few in my pocket, just in case. I rolled one across the deck; he quickly intercepted it and took off - and was back in a flash. Each time he inched a bit closer.

By sunset, we were pretty good friends. No longer apprehensive, I sat relaxed in a chair, tossing an occasional peanut, laughing at the squirrel's antics.

Then, suddenly, he made a beeline for my feet. Startled, I screamed and jumped up on the chair. My reaction frightened him, and he fled. But in a few moments he slunk his way back up the stairs, only to dart for my feet again. Grabbing a broom, I swished it to frighten him off while I scrambled inside. But fear would not have the last word. Taking a deep breath I went back outside, bristly weapon in hand, to reason with him.

Then it struck me: Never before had I thought of my toes, peeking out of my sandals, as peanuts. For this relationship to work, I'd have to look at the world from a squirrel's point of view. We parted that evening as friends; he with a full tummy.

Before sunrise, my cat alerted me to odd sounds coming from the kitchen. Peering around the corner, we both jumped out of our skins. There was Mr. Squirrel, sitting on the kitchen counter, peanut stuffed in mouth.

Arms waving, I told him to shoo, but he thought I was obliging him by tossing peanuts into the air. Good idea, I thought, as I grabbed a peanut from the bag on the floor and aimed it out the screen-less window. He fell for it, following the peanut as I slammed the window shut. Then I grabbed the vulnerable bag of peanuts (what had I been thinking?) and tossed it into the freezer.

The kitchen window has no screen so my cat may come and go freely. Either I'd have to get up at 4 a.m. every day to let her out, or I'd have to put up with an uninvited guest. The window stayed shut. The next few days I placed peanuts outside for him and occasionally he'd come; then there'd be a day or two when he was off busy doing whatever it is squirrels do.

One afternoon I'd forgotten about him and left with the window open. Returning, I was startled to find him sitting on the stove with a juicy 75-cent peach in his little paws. Caught red-handed, he flew out the window, tossing the peach at me as he went. "Thank you very much for leaving the other half!" I yelled after him.

Doubtless there will be more interesting encounters. I especially look forward to seeing how this plays out in the snow. Meanwhile, I'm getting better at reading (squirrel) body language as we settle into a sort of nonroutine routine. I never know when he'll show up, but it's always when I least expect it. If I keep my toes covered and the window open, the worst that can happen is losing a peach or two. But so far, he, the birds, and the cat are managing to share the deck without incident, and I am enriched.

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