It's winter and time to feed the birds or, if your backyard is like mine, feed the squirrels.
Not that I feed squirrels on purpose. How many of you are faced with the problem of squirrels eating your birdseed, purchased at great cost to help our feathered friends survive the winter?
Squirrels don't need help. They spend the fall collecting and burying nuts, and digging up and eating the tulip bulbs I have carefully planted for spring.
Birds have to wing it, which is why we have bird feeders in our gardens. In ours we see a dazzling array from the usual mourning doves, sparrows, nuthatches and robins to the majestic cardinals, impudent blue jays and bullying crows.
Our bird feeder has a steel post that fits into the same concrete hole used by the clothes dryer in the summer. It's fairly firm and secure, although not as much as it once was.
One summer day, I was adjusting a sprinkler head located near the clothes dryer. The sprinkler head slipped from my grasp and a jet of water started pulsating toward me. Not wanting to get a cold shower, I ran as fast as I could backward. I would have gone quite far and certainly out of range of the sprinkler had the dryer post not been in my path. I hit the post at full speed.
Fortunately, it gave way and I went with it sprawling onto the grass. I was winded but quickly revived by the periodic swish of the sprinkler going over my semi-prostrate form. I turned the sprinkler off and replaced the concrete base in the ground, but now when full of clothes, the dryer can topple over if the wind is blowing hard. Luckily, in winter the frozen earth and snow provide adequate support.
We bought the birdseed (without corn as filler) at a pet store nearby for about $20 for a 25-kilogram bag. The squirrels easily climbed the pole to get to the birdseed. As a result, they grew bigger before our eyes, particularly one black squirrel - fat Cyril, as I called him.
Now I know some will think it unfair and not politically correct to mention Cyril's excessive corpulence. I am sorry if you feel that way, but personally I draw the line at squirrels.
Fat Cyril, then, was a living example of why we were going through bags of seed at an alarmingly expensive rate. I investigated installing a concave plastic baffle to prevent the squirrels from climbing the pole. Baffles are expensive though, and the pole diameter too small to accommodate one, so a homemade solution was needed. I thought of an electric fence or barbed wire or even some jagged glass to put around the post, but concluded these approaches were too radical for what is essentially a simple problem.
I needed something to make the post unclimbable, something slippery perhaps. A flash of inspiration came to me. What about Vaseline? I had a jar in the garage that I used to protect garden equipment from the ravages of weather.
I retrieved the jar and, dipping my fingers into the petroleum jelly, grabbed a handful and proceeded to spread it liberally on the post. To be absolutely frank, there is no dignified way to apply it. There I was rubbing the post while my family, intrigued and curious, watched from the comfort of the kitchen. I saw them smirking, but ignored them and finished the job, taking several handfuls to completely cover the post. After washing my hands, I joined them inside.
We didn't have long to wait. Fat Cyril and a couple of his pals scampered along. Fat Cyril got to the bottom of the pole, looked up, turned his head as if to make sure no one was watching him and started to climb. He got a couple of feet off the ground and my family was about to start ridiculing me when, much to their amazement and my glee, he began to slowly slip backward. He tried to accelerate his efforts to make up ground but he couldn't prevent himself from slipping back down the pole. The harder he tried, the quicker his descent. When he reached the ground he picked himself up and scrutinized his paws as if he realized something different was going on but didn't know what.
Apparently undaunted, he tried again. Spurning the gradual approach, he leaped a few feet up the pole and started climbing from there. For a moment he made progress and I wondered whether he had outfoxed me (if outsquirrelled was a word I would have used it here). Then he slipped down to the ground as before.
This time Fat Cyril didn't try again. He ran off, turning around for one last bemused look at the pole, then climbing back up a pine tree where presumably he could console himself with goodies from his winter store.
It worked. My family couldn't believe what they had witnessed and congratulated me. Another squirrel tried with the same result, then another and another. It didn't matter whether they were grey, brown or black, nor which climbing technique they adopted. All came to the same end, even if it was not the end they wanted.
We wondered if the Vaseline would wear off so we kept watch in the next few days. I checked the post periodically but petroleum jelly doesn't freeze nor is it easily washed off by rain, hence its use on babies. My triumph was complete.
I have thought about repackaging Vaseline and selling it at some exorbitant price as a squirrel repellent. Instead I have decided, in the interests of science and the public good, to release my findings to the world.
Chris Chorlton lives in Mississauga.