Dave and Roger were my students in grade 8, and then again several times in grades 9 to 12.   Around about the time they got hunting licenses, they decided that I would have to go out onto the marsh to hunt teal with them.

We set out down the creek above Kilmarnok, and before long their decoys (inherited antiques, most of them) were arrayed in front of their blind.  I headed down the bay to a promising clump of cattails.

My cocker spaniel of the time had a deviant streak a mile wide, but he was a wizard in a duck swamp.  During the morning shoot he delivered five teal to the canoe.  Two I had shot cleanly, two Jasper had seen swimming by and chased down, and one he had retrieved from a twenty-acre corn field behind my stand after I had winged it.  That dog could track a mouse through a haymow.

Anyway, I had fired about a box of shells, bagged some ducks, and thought the morning a great success.   I was a little disappointed for Dave and Roger.  I had hardly heard any shooting from their blind.  When I got there I was rather shocked to discover that they had thirteen ducks between them — with thirteen shots.  Dave had missed one duck, but redeemed himself by dropping a pair of bluebills with a single.

A few years later, established in their careers, Dave and Roger decided that it was time to try deer hunting.  They bought deer tags and slugs for their trusty Remington 870’s, and set out to try their luck.

In the neighbourhood of Dave’s farm lived a ten point buck, a wily character who seemed often to be more a figment of the hunter’s imagination than an actual animal, to judge by the stories told about him.  On the first morning of the season, Dave encountered the buck in an old orchard within easy shotgun range.  The young man carefully raised his 870, took aim, and pumped all five slugs onto the ground.  The buck snorted and walked off, not to be seen for the rest of the week.

Ever honest, Dave told the others what he had done.  Everybody broke up.  Roger shared some of his friend’s ignominy, so they resolved to prepare better for next season.  They bought 30:30 rifles, nice, traditional deer guns, and became competent marksmen with solid bullets.

Roger’s turn came on the second day of the next season.  In the same orchard he encountered the mythical ten pointer, dumping the running deer with a neat hundred-yard, offhand shot.  Roger sprinted to the deer, prepared to finish it off.  The large buck lay still.  Roger thought he’d better put another bullet in it, just to be sure, because he couldn’t see any wound, just a nicked antler.  But where should he shoot?  The neck, and ruin the meat?  The head, and ruin the rack?  He couldn’t decide, and stood there, irresolute, the gun pointed at the ear of the buck, just long enough for the deer to revive, disarming Roger with  a sudden shake of his rack.  The 30:30 landed somewhere in the bushes.  The deer started to rise.

Roger was not about to let his first deer get away, so he jumped onto the half-conscious buck’s neck, and tried to hold the antlers to the ground, yelling loudly to his brother-in-law, Malcolm, for help.  Malcolm was a long way away, and the deer broke Roger’s hold and started to get up.  What to do?  Roger held on to the bases of the antlers like death.  The deer started to move away from the scene of its accident.  Roger had no choice but to go along too.  Before long the pair were making pretty good time through the woods, so Roger threw a leg over the deer’s back and climbed aboard, hoping that he could find a clump of brush into which to entangle the buck’s magnificent antlers.  This went on for some time, with the pace getting faster, until Roger, with a desperate bulldogging roll, tripped the buck into a clump of young soft maples, and was able to entangle his antlers in their flexible stems.

Roger had kept yelling for Malcolm, and the young fellow arrived, out of breath, and brandishing his .308.

“You’re not shooting my deer with that cannon!”  Roger yelled.  “Go back and find my 30:30!”  Of course this cost Roger another harrowing trip through the woods, and more bruises, but finally Malcolm got back and they finished off the deer with a shot through the heart.  Neither liked organ meats.

Word spread like wildfire through town about Roger riding the buck.  The only hearer not to be amused and impressed by the story was his wife.  She looked at his hands — like hamburger — and his vest — flayed by flying hooves, and said that if he did a damned fool thing like that again, he’d be sleeping in the woodshed.

Dave and Roger’s marksmanship has improved over the years, but around the Falls wherever orange hats are worn and beverages are served, they still talk about the day Roger rode the buck.

She burst into our consciousness a week ago when she chased my wife out of the garage. This splendid, feisty gray squirrel announced that she had taken over our garage, and that was it. The cottage roof slopes down close to the heads of passers-by, and there Sarah would perch, just out of reach, chattering her personal brand of trash talk at anyone who came near.

My wife was flat-out afraid of her. The first time Sarah chattered in her ear I heard this high-pitched “ERK!” from Bet and the sound of scurrying feet. Bet’s, not the squirrel’s.

Janice, our neighbour, chimed in. “You guys must have really done something to make a squirrel that mad at you!”

As long as one was in a safe place, Sarah was a lot of fun to watch. She’d patrol the ridgepole of the garage, scolding merrily, then either duck down into the hedge at the front or launch herself in a grand leap to a branch of the ash tree nearby. Then away she’d go, only to reappear from somewhere else a couple of minutes later.

My wife declared war, so I brought a box trap from the farm, along with a half-dozen fresh walnuts for bait. Five minutes later I heard a “snap” in the garage, so I opened up to find no squirrel, just five remaining walnuts and a sprung Have-a-Hart. As I was coming out of the garage after resetting it, Sarah lit into me with the worst tongue-lashing I have ever received. She seemed almost to be gloating about how easy it had been to fool me as she crouched there on the edge of the roof, just out of arm’s reach, daring me to just try it, Buster.

In defeat, but rather admiring my opponent, I retreated to the house for the evening.

In the morning I checked the trap. Three walnuts remained and the trap was sprung again. Sarah heard me and soon leaped from the hedge to her pulpit on the roof and started in anew. Gritting my teeth, I reset the thing and placed a plastic gas can at one end to complicate things.

Nothing happened for the rest of the day, but every time I stuck my head in through the side door of the garage I’d see Sarah ducking out through the slight gap between the overhead door and the concrete. I think she was trying to figure out how the gas can was part of the trap.

This morning when I checked, the gas can had been shoved aside, the nuts were all gone, and a disgusted Sarah was in the trap. I guess she had moved the can and carefully hauled the walnuts away, but then couldn’t stand thinking there might be another she had missed, so she went back and looked under that funny trapdoor in the middle.

Last week Roz had brought me a book entitled Outwitting Squirrels, by Bill Adler Jr.  He suggests treating squirrels like chickens.  “There’s no chicken recipe which won’t work for squirrel.”  Yeah, but…  This is a really pretty squirrel, and she’s as funny as all get out, as long as she doesn’t get into a position where she can do real damage.  I put a blanket over the cage and loaded her into the back of my truck for a trip to the farm.  I know you’re not supposed to do that, but I kinda liked her, okay?

When I removed the blanket in the woodlot and opened the cage door, Sarah went out of there and up a maple tree in one continuous motion.  She hid behind the tree for a few seconds, but then, true to form, she popped around and scolded me again.

But the vast canopy beckoned, and the last I saw of Sarah she was doing a Tarzan across the tops of the maples, striking a beeline for the grove of walnuts I thought I’d avoid by taking her to the northwestern corner of the woodlot.  Yeah, right.  I’ll keep an eye out for her when I’m hunting: “Don’t shoot the one that comes down the tree and yells at you.”  You’ve gotta admire her spirit, but I’m glad she’s no longer in control of our garage.

UPDATE Sept 13:  And now she’s brought her family into this.  One of her half-grown kits (?) has just joined Sarah in the woodlot by way of the Have-A-Hart.  Her name is Bristol.  I must be nuts!

The heavy snow at last melted from the edge of the newly-planted walnut field, so I examined the hills for surviving nuts in the rows next to the woodlot.  Many of the seeds were missing in the outer row, and the predation had moved in a full five rows at the northwestern corner of the field, next to a red squirrel hideout.  A total of 32 hills had been wiped out by squirrels.

I began armed patrols and shortly had reduced the predators by three reds, one chipmunk (no kidding, they’re relentless nut-thieves), and one very crafty gray.

That has slowed the bleeding.  Yesterday I started transplanting yearling seedlings from the display field, where they were growing in groups of up to five stems per hill after 2006’s remarkably successful seeding frenzy.

At first I moved plants to fill the gaps in the display field only, but when the gaps ran out I loaded the back of the golf cart up with a half-dozen shovels-full of sod (containing a seedling in each), and ran them down the hill to the raided areas in the new field where similar holes awaited them.  I wouldn’t think the trees were out of the ground for longer than two or three minutes, tops, and the ground is moist.

Three-year-old saplings don’t want to move, and even two-year-olds can’t be dug up without cutting off or tearing out the main root.  Last year’s seeds seem to come out well in a shovel-full, though.

While I haven’t named the individuals I moved to new homes, their size and the disturbed sod should make their continued study relatively easy.  From what I saw last year in the garden, I suspect the yearling seedlings will survive and the others will die by July.

More on this later.  Patrols continue.  I saw a nice harrier today, and hope it will help.

Oh, BTW:  the weekend highlight was the sight of three white swans flying low over the house.  Those are some birds!

Squirrels again II

November 21, 2007

Yesterday I raced before the gathering snow clouds to resolve the issue of the squirrel-depleted seed supply in the new field.  As you may recall I had listed four alternatives:

1.  ignore the losses and plant more nuts;

2.  fence the squirrels away from the seeds;

3.  shoot or poison the little demons;

4.  find a way to gross them out.

I had intended to report a glorious smear tactic in this space, one using a couple of tons of fresh, green goo.  Turned out that wasn’t all that easy to do.  First, every farmer I asked offered only well-aged, environmentally friendly compost — excellent fertilizer, but almost completely lacking in that essential “yuck” factor.  When I refused one offer, planning to hold out for the gooey stuff, a neighbour pointed out that my spreader couldn’t contain the smelly stuff, unless I wanted to haul it in oil barrels and spread it with a bucket.  That grossed me out and I abandoned the plan.

Then yesterday afternoon it warmed up after a heavy rain and the time for the assault had come.  In the tradition of Sir Arthur Currie, it came down to choice #1,  so I exhorted my basket of  nuts to further efforts in the name of The Croskery Woodlot and sent them out in ever greater numbers to face their wiley foes.  It was better than doing nothing, and I have lots of  nuts.  I’ll watch from the safety of the verandah and hope they survive.

Squirrels again!

November 17, 2007

The lead article in this edition of The Nuttery cites an European study http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/12/061222093058.htm which claims that red squirrels have population explosions timed to take advantage of bountiful nut harvests. In other words they predict the boom year and have extra litters to exploit the resource. Scientists are still scratching their heads about how they do this, but there was no mistaking the huge increase in the number of red squirrels underfoot two summers ago. The population had settled down considerably by this fall’s stingy harvest.

Good riddance to them, and to chipmunks, too, if they would ever leave.

Over the last two years, on the other hand, my esteem for grey squirrels has increased steadily. While they may not be psychic like their red cousins, they show amazing adaptibility and a strong work ethic. I’ve already mentioned how they changed their harvesting tactics due to the demise of the old coyote and the presence of Zeke, the local red-tailed hawk. They stayed on the ground this fall until the day after Zeke flew south, and then they took to the trees with a vengeance.

Perhaps the current wolf became the target of a bored deer hunter, because now the greys have discovered my new walnut seeds. They started at the corner near the large trees and have worked their way into the field about forty feet. Another individual is picking the outer row off quite methodically, most likely using the posts and burned patches from Roundup to help him find the nuts. So it’s Elmer Fudd time again. My choices seem to be to:

1. ignore the losses and plant more nuts;

2. fence the squirrels away from the seeds;

3. shoot or poison the little demons;

4. find a way to gross them out.

Years ago I found the easiest way to get rid of fish entrails in the country was to find a convenient woodchuck hole and drop everything down the vertical chute. The chucks didn’t like this. They kept moving away until I ran out of holes within walking distance of my fish-cleaning bench.

When emptying ancient squirrel nests from the soffits of my mother’s house two summers ago I was struck by the cleanliness of the nesting material. Unlike mice, greys seem very fastidious in their personal habits. Maybe I can use this to my advantage.

If I can introduce a substance around the new plantings which the squirrels find repugnant, maybe they’ll leave the seeds alone.

Fresh cow manure would be my first choice as it is in good supply in my area, has benefits as a fertilizer, and is unlikely to attract racoons and coyotes in the manner of fish entrails. Mind you, neither of the above eat walnuts, and they have been known to munch on the occasional squirrel. Hmmm.

The outer two rows of the field seem to be the most vulnerable to predation. That would be seventy forks-full of green, gooey stuff. Will it work? Will it last? Of course it would be a lot quicker just to plant another fifty nuts to fill the gaps, but that didn’t work two years ago or last year, and the other patches still have few trees in the outer rows.

More on this later.

This morning I set out to add to the cache of walnuts Gary and I collected yesterday prior to the IPM meeting. This turned into an education in the thought patterns of the grey squirrel. I now understand the verb to squirrel. I came upon several of these temporary caches of nuts, tucked in under the edges of rocks, buried in long grass in a shallow depression, or lined neatly along under a disused fence rail. The squirrel’s day seems a constant cost/benefit analysis: effort, security from predators, quality of forage, and competitive effort. For example around the two large trees along the lane, where storage is at a premium yet cover is available, the individuals tended to cache their booty on the ground in a clump of wild raspberry canes, presumably in the hope that other squirrels would not find it. This applies to walnut finds up to about twenty feet from the trunk: no random fall pattern at all. From a single seated position on a rock I was able to collect 100 to 150 nuts per try. Other areas away from the caches were bare of fruit. From 25 to 45 feet from the tree on the sunny side of the trees, however, I observed what I took to be a purely random fall pattern. Obviously the squirrels have decided that the risks of hawk and coyote attack outweigh the potential benefit of the additional nuts. A disquieting thought: the greys may have realized that smaller nuts produce less benefit than larger fruits, and so have concentrated their efforts elsewhere in the forest. I may have collected a burlap bag of their rejects today.

For in the deeper part of the woodlot my efforts went for naught. I visited two dozen of the finest specimens in the stand and found perhaps a dozen prizes, along with coyote scat beneath several of the trees. This produced a mental picture of the coyote lying there, salivating, as the grays cavorted in the branches above, dropping an occasional husk but never leaving the canopy. One eccentric squirrel seems often to husk the nut before transporting it. The abandoned hulls were my only evidence that these trees in fact bore fruit this season. I spotted a few fine green specimens in a decaying maple lying across an abandoned trail. Gritting my teeth at the strangeness of it, I extracted five or six from the hollow log, and a few others which had been hastily concealed. Without a chainsaw I could go no further on this particular raid. My pleasant morning competing with the (invisible) grays has led me to a couple of conclusions about the creation of a walnut nursery on the property: 1. Spacing of plantings must be planned with a view to creating feelings of anxiety among squirrels. A buffer zone around the outside of the plantings might well deter casual feeding if there are less expensive nuts available elsewhere. The zone security could be reinforced with patrols by hunters and/or a border collie who has learned a new, highly specific, herding task. 2. I fervently hope that the walnuts collected were not the squirrels’ rejects. 3. Based upon my observations today, the smaller the nut, the bigger the tree. The main donor trees are both well over 80 years old and have proven themselves extremely hardy and willing nut producers. Yet the nuts are small this year. Younger and I would think inferior specimens in the same stand had large hulls with more of a football shape than the sharply defined and slightly desiccated older trees’ efforts. 4. It’s not hard to understand how the grays have done the plantings, and the pattern of new walnut growth is evidence of Stewart Hamill’s theory that animals need protected routes to promote bio-diversity. Taming the grove without exterminating the squirrels may take some planning, however.