Backyard Squirrel Wars!

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One of two feeding stations in the back yard.

Kensington, Maryland.  January 30, 2018 — It seems like our backyard is a battlefield and we didn’t even know it.  Our bird feeders are key terrain and ground zero where the action begins.

The feeders form a miniature ecosystem of their own. In addition to bird feeding, the tube feeders allow squirrels to regularly clean up the banquet our feathered friends spill as they withdraw seeds like cash from an ATM.

Our yard is excellent bird habitat by design.  The space is surrounded by evergreen holly trees and hedges.  The yard also features a large patch of perennial flowers which were planted to attract the succulent insects found on a bird’s aspirational five-star menu.

The holly provides year-round cover from predators.  The leaves and branches protect our customers while they flight-plan their next feeder run.

The flyers perch under cover, then zoom down to the feeder, grab a sunflower seed in a quick go-around, and return to their perches to nosh away.

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On short final.

Nature, being what it is, birds occasionally die and crash at the foot of the feeders only to be policed up by the feral cats, raccoons, gray foxes or coyotes that patrol the neighborhood in search of easy pickings.

These efficient scavengers take care of business under the cover of darkness. Seldom do we find the fallen the morning after.  Instead, the go Missing in Action (MIA).

In all, 32 bird species have flown in to sample our feeder fare over time.  Some, like the great blue heron, have been seen only once.  Since it didn’t refuel, maybe it was a simple flight layover.

Other species, including colonies of house finches and three kinds of sparrows, live rent-free, year around in the 11 hollow gourdes that serve as bird houses.  They are scattered around the front and back yards.  This subsidized room and board arrangement suits them fine.

In addition to the bird herds, as many as 10 cardinals at a time, along with flocks of dark-eyed junkos and mourning doves, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, wrens, Jays, and four kinds of woodpeckers have been tallied making a living off this space.

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Red-bellied woodpecker

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Male house finch and a male downy woodpecker 

I’m not surprised that you don’t see nearly as many squirrels in the back country in comparison to urban environments.

In the wild, there are just too many predators including squadrons of hawks and owls, reinforced by armies of ground-dwelling coyotes, raccoons, foxes, snakes, weasels and wild cats.  It seems squirrels are a universal delicacy.

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One day a cooper’s hawk didn’t make any pretense.

The same dynamic applies to rabbits.  One year we had dozens in the neighborhood.  Each day they happily munched away on our expensive flowers.  Then, a nesting pair of red tail hawks moved in and nearly wiped them out in a single summer.

In spite of living in an ecosystem where they are low down the food chain, squirrels have a hierarchy of their own.  See: Why squirrels chase each other

We have two kinds of squirrels in the neighborhood, the common gray squirrel and a black variation.  They don’t like each other very much as witnessed by their constant skirmishing while foraging under the feeders.

“The black squirrel and the gray squirrel are the same species of squirrel: Sciurus carolinensis, a.k.a. the Eastern gray squirrel, the only difference being a color variation. The black squirrels evince a “melanistic color phase,” the recessive gene for black coloration coming to the fore,” according to the Washington Post.  The Washington Post story.

Birds are messy eaters and drop a lot of seed.  Encouraging the squirrels and ground-feeding birds to clean up under the feeders helps keeps unwanted plants from sprouting.  This is not a DMZ, but the place where battles for dominance and territory begin.

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The two tribes.

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The first victim we noticed.

One day a black squirrel appeared with a nasty raw wound on its side.  No doubt he’d tangled with something, but we had no idea what.

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Old one ear.

A couple of days later we noticed a gray squirrel missing his ear and a chunk of his face.  The wound was healing, but still very raw and painful in appearance.  It was about the same age as the injury to the black squirrel and we wondered, but still no definitive evidence to go on.

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Purple Heart number three.

Today a second previously injured gray squirrel showed up with a bite-size divot.   It was followed in short time by a fourth wounded squirrel.

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This wound is in the center of the back, not the side as with the other black squirrel.

There are four wounded squirrels that appear to have been injured at about the same time.  At first, we imagined the first two may have encountered a predator.  Now it appears that all four squirrels were hurt at approximately the same time.

The bite-size evidence suggests that the wounds may have been been suffered in an all-squirrel battle over territory, or for dominance.  What ever it was, nobody was intimidated.  All four battle-scarred, and several others were digging in proximity for seeds today.

Who knew that these seemingly happy little tree rats would do as much damage to each other as they can do to human property.

Karma?

Maybe Moose and Squirrel were tougher than we thought.

Sisu

 

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “Backyard Squirrel Wars!

  1. What a good report from the DMZ. The heron sighting must have been fun. I like the Cooper sitting there. We had one swoop in on a squirrel once and nailed his ass. He flew off with the squirrel tail wagging in the air. It was an awesome display of power. We had some black squirrels last year. None yet this year. I don’t know if they moved on or were easy prey.

    • The Cooper nailed a Junco when I happened to be watching. It happened so quickly that I barely realized it. “Display of power” is an apt description. Squirrels around bird feeders are easy prey. Their instincts to eat overcome their normal vigilance. Some bolt when the birds startle. Most don’t unless they themselves sense a threat. That’s where the hawk’s speed enters the equation. The Cooper’s Hawk was in and out on the Junco in about a finger snap – he was a total blur.

  2. Yeah, this was a fun report. Today I got home from a meeting. As I entered the driveway I saw a large bird — LARGE BIRD!! — sitting on top of one of the front bushes. They are barberries, rough and dense, but with fine branches at the ends. Not really a good place to perch. But there it was. I slowly edged closer and knew, of course, it was a Cooper. The sparrows spend a lot of time in those barberries. The hawk picked up and dived at the bushes, trying to grab a sparrow. It came up empty-clawed and resumed its position. As it did that, though, sparrows were escaping the other direction. I watched at least 3 times as it tried for a snack, but no go. Finally it left the bush and landed in the yard. I got a couple of decent shots with my phone through the open window of my car. Then the big bird lifted and flew around to the back of the house. Poor Jim missed the whole thing.

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