Enter the Mammals
FEEDING WILD ANIMALS PART 2. ENTER THE MAMMALS
After the charming friendship of the ducklings, I met the squirrels. They’d been scampering around on the periphery of my feeding overtures, but they seemed smart and curious and probably had been fed by picnickers before. I noticed one eyeing me. I tossed it a peanut in a shell. Squirrels learn while young to crack acorns efficiently. I figured a peanut would be child’s play for an adult squirrel. True: holding a peanut between two front paws, squirrels would sit on their haunches and munch away. In fact, they would eagerly take peanuts in or out of the shell.
If I landed a peanut near a squirrel, and the nut went out of sight, the squirrel would search for it. Not so the ducks. If I threw a peanut and it landed right between a duck’s feet and bounced backward out of the duck’s sight, the duck would not so much as look for it. The ducks seemed to have no concept that something out of sight could still be there. See it or skip it was their approach. I inadvertently bounced peanuts off the heads of two or three ducks, but they never looked for the peanut, though other ducks would close in and grab it.
The ducks would race one another to get peanuts. There were occasional quack-sputtering squabbles, duck free-for-alls. One duck was paler in color then the normal mallard, and she (I presumed it was a she; I have no real idea about its gender) became my favorite because I like nonconformists. Another duck was crippled and could barely walk. I made sure to pitch peanuts straight to those two. Because the lame duck (yep) couldn’t keep up with the others, I would throw peanuts far from the lame one, the others would run to get them, leaving the lame one behind, and I would toss food directly to it until the others caught on.
Duck vs. Squirrel vs. Crow: Interspecies Rivalry
Competition for my wares was not limited to conflicts among ducks. One of the rare occasions when I was feeding a crow, I started tossing peanuts to a number of mallards. By then I was using shelled peanuts, which I could throw out by the handful without any tedious deshelling. The ducks were going bonkers over the scattering of a massive number of peanuts. When the crow caught on, it flew over to the ducks and chased them away. Apparently to a crow, peanuts are crow food and nothing but crow food.
A squirrel took the same aggressive stance when a duck closed in on a peanut the squirrel had already laid claim to. The squirrel jumped with outstretched front paws at the duck as if aiming to strangle the waterfowl. The duck, uh, ducked and ran off without disputing the mammal’s hegemony.
While I tended to think of these species as being concerned only with their same-species relationships, in fact there were cross-species interactions and disputes. Crow watched squirrel watched ducks watched me watched crow. We were all in this business of peanuts.
I soon learned that more-dire things went on—acts of sheer terror in broad daylight. I might have 20 ducks feeding around me, when all would go on alert, staring in one direction with fear shining in their beady eyes. Breathless seconds would drip slowly by. Then the ducks would burst into flight, a flapping, quacking dash to the river—unusual, because they typically walked in and out of the water. What brought on this sudden panic?
Dogs. All the waterfowl, including the aggressive, larger Canada geese, bolted if a dog was approaching, even 50 yards away.
The other problem, in my view, was children. Not all, but some. The hyper ones. Those greatly entertained by assaulting waterfowl with squeals, sticks, and stones. I’d be making friends of my dining companions. Out of nowhere, a 5-year-old girl with an axe handle (okay, a slight exaggeration), or a little boy with fangs (okay, with a pugnacious attitude), would crash the party, chasing the birds, rushing them back into the river. Note, however: The birds didn’t buzz off at the mere sight of a child, while it took only the sight of a dog, however distant, to make the waterfowl retreat in panic. Apparently the kids, even though excited at forcing their will upon other creatures, were less of a threat than dogs. Personally, though, I sometimes wished I had a ritalin dart gun with which to calm these children, but I suppose some people would see that as excessive.
Please read next week’s installment, Signs of the Times