Saturday, December 21, 2013

Baffled by Baffles: The Squirrel Who Failed to Get a Grip

            With a foot of snow covering the ground from two recent falls, the garden landscape has officially ceased giving us anything "growing" to watch, monitor, chart or debate. However, planted in the center of the berry patch we do have the bird feeder. It is not merely however a place to watch birds compete for feeder space, it's also a living laboratory for an ongoing experiment in evolution. Not for the birds, but the squirrels.
            The squirrels have to rely on the birds' assistance to get any benefit out of the feeder's
dispensary of abundant free sunflower seeds. Birds probe into the feeder's beak-holes, and some seeds fall to the ground.
            Eventually, a squirrel, we call him the "super-squirrel" decides that if he were up there where the stream of free sunflower seed flows from, he could make it flow a lot faster. Right into his mouth.
            It's just a matter of getting up there. While the squirrel's element is generally considered to be earth unlike birds, who spend a lot of time in the air, in fact squirrels do more airborne traveling than any mammals except maybe monkeys. They nest in trees and use them for above-ground superhighways to get from place to place. The time squirrels spend in trees is probably what gives them that elevated perspective.
            The super-squirrel knows he has to get up there to the place where the seeds come from. He is a keen judge of distances. Generally, he waits for the snow. The snow pushes ground level up, often a foot higher, so when he starts climbing he is a lot closer to his goal.
            Almost always, in the cases the local domestic scientists have observed from their kitchen, the squirrel begins by climbing straight up the thin metal pole that supports the feeder. How it is that squirrels have evolved the ability to climb upward on slick metal surfaces I leave to others to explain. We have seen this too often to be surprised.
            However after a few feet the squirrel encounters the black metal baffle (see photo), seen from its underside and is -- the word play is inevitable -- "baffled" as to how to proceed. The squirrel holds the pole between the claws of his back feet and reaches out to the baffle. But the baffle is loose, it's intended to be hard to climb, hard to get a grip on, and the severe acute angle the squirrel approaches from is too difficult to overcome  -- no matter how athletically gifted the squirrel is.
            He reaches too far, loses his balance, drops off into the snow.
            This does not dissuade him. He repeats the process a few times; same result. The squirrel turns his back walks away. Never mind, poke your nose in the snow for fallen seeds. Move on. This stage lasts a few seconds, then he turns about to confront his goal once again.
            This time he takes a running leap at the feeder and jumps straight up onto the baffle. But landing on the convex slope of the baffle gives the leaper no time to get a grip, because the baffle, as intended, tips under his weight and dumps the squirrel unceremoniously into the snow.
            Cheers from the kitchen.
            Up in split seconds. Move on. Nose in snow. Pretends. Don't look at it. Chase a few dumb birds away; the ground is mine.
            Squirrel turns and faces his obstacle. Makes a few more runs and leaps.
            But he's dumped unceremoniously each time. To the continued laughter of the unsuspected observers.
            The squirrel wanders off a little, makes a circle. He finds himself amid the winter-bare stalks of the raspberry bushes. Squirrel has another idea. If you cannot climb the thing itself, climb something nearby to get close enough to make your leap. He climbs straight up the bare raspberry cane but is startled when the stalk suddenly bends over beneath his weight, becomes a parabola rather than a launching pad.
            Squirrel hangs upside down from his back feet.
            Hilarity in the kitchen.
            Squirrel falls into the snow. Polite applause.
            As before it takes a fee repeat trials to confirm the result.
            Squirrel wanders in the snow beneath the feeder, pretends to search for seed. Appears slightly disconsolate. Runs off somewhere and climbs a tree.
            But he'll be back. They always are. As we know from experience the squirrel, if he is a true super squirrel is both a combination of mental and character attributes (imagination, persistence) and physical gifts. As we know also from experience the way the super-squirrel achieves his goal, and baffles the baffle, and achieves his goal of feeding directly from the plastic feeder dispensary, is to leap straight up from the ground to the very top of the baffle, seize the pole with his claws, and then climb to whatever position he wishes to remove the seed.
            The prime position,the apex of success, is to hang upside down from the top of the plastic-tube dispenser, back claws securing the hold, and feed at your leisure from a position of privileged access at the little openings in the tube meant for bird. This position effectively puts an end to all competition because no bird can get near the feeder while a squirrel is splayed across it.
            Thd squirrels who learn how to do this will succeed, survive, breed, pass their knack onto their young... and so, in turn, the race of super-squirrels advances.
            Remembers, domestic scientists. You're seeing evolution at work. From a front-row seat in the kitchen.