Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Persistence of Squirrels

Squirrels are not very smart, and they cannot see very well, either.  They make up for these failings by sheer persistence!

I built my own "Twirl-A-Squirrel"(tm) corn feeder after seeing similar devices online and whatnot.   It is hours, or at least minutes of endless fun.   The little buggers seem to enjoy the ride, and certainly enjoy the corn, and it dissuades them from attacking the bird feeders.

By the way, should you feed wild animals?   For the most part, no.   But some articles, such as this poorly-written"Mental Floss" (I am being redundant) article has a catchy title about not feeding the birds, and then in the body doesn't even discuss birds, but things like reef sharks.

Feeding animals does change their behavior, often for the worse.   If some yahoo at an outdoor restaurant decides it would be "funny" to throw a french fry at a seagull, within 20 minutes, the patrons will be chased from their tables by hoards of maundering gulls.   The problem is made worse when lazy waitstaff delay in busing tables and leave food scraps laying around for birds to eat.

Feeding raccoons, wild birds, deer, and whatnot will cause them to change their behaviors and start to hang around your house looking for handouts.   Seagulls in particular will flock towards food.   Feeding of dangerous animals, like bears, can cause tragic interactions between humans and bears, with one or the other ending up injured or dead as a result.

Songbirds will visit feeders, and for the most part, most experts don't believe that having a bird feeder is akin to causing bird genocide, and may in fact help populations of wild birds.   I have noticed that birds can be very territorial - chasing other birds away from "their" feeder.   As a result, you don't end up with swarms of birds, like you do with seagulls, if you put out birdseed.   Cardinals are quite particular in this regard, and will not tolerate another bird on the same feeder, even if there is room.

Cardinals, by the way, are the worst pilots in the world.   Whoever came up with that saying, "any landing you walk away from is a good landing" must have been watching Cardinals.  They rarely get more than a few feet off the ground, which is disastrous as they love to fly across the road at car-height (often with predictable results).  Their vision also seems to be less than optimal.   Often they fly smack-dab into a feeder and then try to recover at the last minute and try to look cool, as if to say, "I meant to do that".   They also get fat as houses, to the point where it is amazing they can fly at all.

Hawks and Pelicans - those are the real pilots. Hawks can stay aloft almost indefinitely, it seems, if there is a good breeze, trimming a feather here or there to bank and circle, until they dive down on some unsuspecting mouse or mole.

Pelicans glide across the water in ground effect, similarly conserving energy, their wing tips occasionally touching the water.  They sometimes do this in kettes of three or more, each surfing off the wingtip vorticies of the next.   When a fish is spotted, they trade speed for altitude in a sharp climb and then dive down under the water, usually emerging with dinner in their pouch.

But Cardinals?  Blind as bats and shitty pilots to boot.  But they are territorial and won't let other birds "swarm" their feeder if they can help it.   Male Cardinals often shoo off their own mates!

Squirrels are the same way, and it is interesting that only one or two squirrels "ride the cob" on the Twirl-A-Squirrel, which I reload only occasionally.   They seem to chase off "foreign" squirrels from neighboring trees or yards - when the latter try to sneak in for a bite.

At a nearby park, there are hoards of squirrels, or at least dozens of them.   It is a picnic park, and I guess people must throw breadcrumbs to the squirrels, as they are quite tame and will approach humans and beg for food. It is interesting to watch their behavior, as they seem to have keen distance eyesight and can notice movements.

But up-close, they are basically blind as bats.   Maybe this has something to do with the fact their eyes are on either side of the head, and they don't appear to have binocular vision.   In fact, I doubt they can see directly in front of themselves, as their large nose divides the vision planes.

When someone throws them a tidbit, even if it lands next to them, they seem to have a hard time finding it.  They start to search, using their hands and sense of smell, circling in a spiral search pattern, until they eventually find the food. It is interesting that something dropped right next to them is missed, and they often wander off in another direction before finally finding the food, minutes later. They know the food is there - they saw the toss and motion of flight - but they cannot see it on the ground a mere inches from their faces.

When they forage for "natural" foods, such as acorns and seeds, they tend to take a similar approach.  They don't so much look for food as they do search for it on all fours (hence the filthy little hands) and drive their noses into the leaves and detritus on the forest floor until they either smell something or touch it.   It is very time consuming, of course, which is why they seem to spend most of their day doing this - searching again and again for food, when they are not sleeping, fighting, or riding the cob.

Now, from an evolutionary standpoint, you might wonder why squirrels don't develop a better sense of sight.  After all, this would allow them to find food better and avoid prey, right?   And maybe they wouldn't be so spastic when they see a car coming - darting left and then right until SPLAT! there is a flat squirrel in the road. But I think their monocular vision is a defense mechanism - like that of many birds - allowing them a near 360-degree view, which is helpful if you are prey and not a predator.

Most prey birds have the same arrangement.  It is only the predators that have binocular vision, so they can home on in the prey.   So deer have monocular, wolves have binocular.   This is not to say the predators always win, however.

In fact, the squirrels survive in spite of this.   Their monocular vision is helpful in avoiding prey (such as a swooping hawk).   Their vision system, as well as that of prey birds, it tuned to that.   If you make sudden arm movements like "wings" of a large bird, the squirrels, Cardinals, doves, and chickadees will all flee in terror.  The squirrels will scamper up their tree in safety, twitching their tails in the alarm mode, making their squeaky screeching alarm sound.

But what helps them survive predation is a hindrance in finding food.  Binocular vision would no doubt help them find those nuts and seeds and other tasty tidbits on the forest floor.  But since they don't have this, they grope around like blind mice, feeling and sniffing their way to food.  They systematically cover the ground in their territory and eventually find food out of sheer persistence.

And that is how they found the corn on the Twirl-A-Squirrel.  They didn't see the corn and figure out how to "ride the cob" but rather just stumbled upon it in their daily routine of climbing and exploring every inch of their territory.  It takes a while - weeks even - before they find things like this, but once they find them, they "know" to go back to the same place (they apparently have a vivid three-dimensional memory, which helps them find nuts they stored earlier).

They are pretty clever, too - often "fake" hiding nuts and seeds, knowing that other squirrels are watching them, so that the other squirrels will waste their efforts trying to dig up non-existent nuts. 

But their main weapon is persistence - the ability to repetitively sift through a mountain of dead leaves and grass clippings for hours on end, hoping to find that stray nut or seed pod, or whatever else looks edible.

Which brings us to the point of this posting.   You may not be the smartest bulb in the chandelier. You may not be handsome or pretty, or be physically strong or coordinated. You may not come from money, or have a loving family to support you in your early years.  You may not have a lot of the advantages that others have in life.

But if you are persistent, you can survive and thrive.   All it takes sometimes, is just not giving up when it seems like what you are doing is futile and pointless or merely dreary and endless.

There are a lot of successful people in this world whose success confounds the experts.  They are not smart people or clever people or folks who came from wealth.  They didn't have college degrees or advanced education - they may in fact have been poor students.

But they were not deterred by this.  They didn't let statistics and other people's expectations get in the way of their goals and dreams.

OK, so maybe this sounds like a glurge.   But I think there is a nugget of truth to it.   A lot of "dumb" people in this world are successful and a lot of "smart" people end up being too smart for their own good - their intellect turning inwardly on themselves in a self-destruct mode.   And it irks the smart people that "dumb" people get ahead.

They're squirrels. Not very bright, but persistent.   And maybe there is a lesson in that somewhere, I dunno....

At the very least, I think, it illustrates that it is pointless to be angry that "dumb" people succeed in life.