Last year my parents, who are in their seventies, moved from their home in Kentucky to a small property in the mountains of North Carolina. In their backyard they erected a number of bird feeders that attract a constant stream of colorful customers–at last count, birds of nearly 20 varieties, from hummingbirds to thrushes to finches to doves to cardinals to blue jays to, yes, even nasty ol’ crows. The poor crows my parents always scold off, whooping and hollering out their sliding glass door, loud enough that they sometimes rouse the attention of neighbors.
That circus of birds is a great sight to behold, winging in and out of the cypress and pine trees. My parents spend hours watching them circle and swoop and dive, and they take enormous delight in the arrival of every visitor of a new variety, hurrying for the bird book. They study how the different birds cling to the feeders, how they crack open the hulls. They note which birds prefer which types of seed. They observe the dynamics among the various species.
Put simply, my parents love the company of those birds. And anybody who visits my parents, should she stay long enough, is apt to fall in love with those birds, too. I speak from experience.
Living where they do, one could reasonably expect that my folks might also find fellowship with other critters in their yard. But such critters, if they’re around, have kept a very low profile–even the squirrels, which is surprising, especially given the presence of all those well-stocked bird feeders.
It wasn’t until early this summer that a squirrel or two started attacking the birdfeed. How rude. They hadn’t been invited to the party. My parents promptly installed anti-squirrel countermeasures and made sure to give any squirrel the same scolding as every crow.
What happened next is unbelievable. After some days of discouragement, one of those squirrels actually climbed up on my parents’ back porch, walked up to their sliding door, and rapped on the glass. That’s right. That little critter was no dummy. He knew who was really running the show. He knew who really dispensed the birdfeed. And now, here he was, politely asking to be fed.
My mother, telling me this on the phone, said, “I don’t know what we’re going to do. He’s a little pest. But he’s so cute.”
“Well,” I said, “why not just feed him?” I couldn’t help but tease her a little. “I mean, are you really going to try to explain to that squirrel why you’re willing to feed birds but not him? Are you really going to try to justify squirrel discrimination?” We both laughed. We were joking around, but at the same time, the question was real, and we both knew it. What makes one creature worth feeding, and another not? What makes one worthy of our attention, and another not? What makes one a pest, and another a welcome guest?
Simple questions from nature, all too applicable in the realm of human animals.
I haven’t heard anything about that squirrel for several weeks now. Time I should get an update.
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