Pop Goes the Weasel

Last spring, we had several encounters with a long-tailed weasel that was probably denned up under the guesthouse. Whether it was only a male weasel, a female with young, or both we never knew because we only saw one weasel at a time.

William and Catherine Plummer, the original settlers in the hollow named for them.

William and Catherine Plummer, the original settlers in the hollow named for them.

Our guesthouse was built in 1865 by the original settler, William Plummer and his 10 sons (one had been killed at the siege of Petersburg during the Civil War). The log cabin they had lived in beneath the knoll where our house now stands had burned to the ground. Their new home had six-pane sash windows and vertical board and batten siding and the central portion was constructed with only a crawl space beneath it.

Ever since, a variety of mammals—porcupines, woodchucks, rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks—have lived under it or in the nearby stone wall. With the stream below, it provides ideal habitat even for long-tailed weasels, because they favor woodland edges with dense cover near a stream and will live near humans if there is abundant food and suitable den sites, all of which describe our guesthouse, our house, and its surrounding habitat.

A long-tailed weasel (Photo by Jerry Kirkhart on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A long-tailed weasel (Photo by Jerry Kirkhart on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Both our sons, Dave and Mark, in the guesthouse, and I in our sunroom, heard more noise than usual beneath our homes last spring. Then, one morning in mid-May, Mark watched a long-tailed weasel bound under the guesthouse and into its walls and emerge with a mouse dangling from its mouth. That old, porous house provided happy hunting grounds for the weasel.

After all, biologists maintain that deer mice are the second favorite prey of long-tailed weasels, but meadow voles are their favorites and I unwittingly provided an easy source of them. I had been throwing bird seed out on the dirt below our back steps for ground-feeding birds. This not only enticed meadow voles to feed there too, but they constructed several tunnels beneath the seeds so they could quickly grab a seed and duck back into their underground refuge. Then they grew bolder and did not disappear when I looked out at them. I spent several weeks watching them feed side by side with the birds.

A long-tailed weasel carrying a vole Photo by FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A long-tailed weasel carrying a vole Photo by FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

But the day before Mark reported his sighting of the long-tailed weasel, the whole area beneath our back porch had been dug up and the meadow voles’ tunnels destroyed. The voles were gone, no doubt victims of one or more weasels. Apparently, long-tailed weasels can easily creep into the burrows of meadow voles and kill them by suffocating, according to biologists and to the video on YouTube I watched which showed a long-tailed weasel doing that.

The long, sinuous bodies of long-tailed weasels enable them to move underground when hunting prey, and while they make their own dens in banks or under stumps, they construct their nests at the end of underground tunnels built by their prey, most notably chipmunks. After they eat their prey, beginning with their heads, hearts and lungs, they use their victims’ fur, along with dried grasses, to line and construct their nests, which are 9 to 12 inches in diameter and often cluttered with the bones of those they kill.

The next morning, as I walked down to the guesthouse, a long-tailed weasel ran up the hill toward our house. I had time to admire its dark brown body, triangular-shaped head, white underparts, and black-tipped tail and the way it bounded along, its back humped when it crossed directly in front of me. It appeared to slip around the foundation of the house probably searching for the several chipmunks that had burrows there.

Long-tailed weasels are generalists both in their habitat requirements and food. They eat 40% of their weight every day and over 90% of their prey consists of small mammals, chiefly rodents including Norway rats and house mice, but also red, gray, fox and flying squirrels, moles, shrews, muskrats, and young cottontail rabbits and snowshoe hares.

They are not ruthless killers but cache excess prey for several days for themselves or to feed their young. They don’t suck blood as legend insists, but lap blood that seeps from the back of their prey’s skull after they kill it by holding it down with their feet and body and biting the base of its skull or severing its spinal cord.

Long-tailed weasels also eat deer, beaver, and woodchuck carrion, insects, earthworms, and any birds they can catch on nests. Red-winged blackbirds, tree sparrows, song sparrows, northern flickers, dark-eyed juncos and blue-winged teal have been noted by various observers. In addition, they will raid birds’ nests for eggs. They readily climb trees in pursuit of prey and even though their eyesight is poor, they have excellent hearing and sense of smell, both of which they use to track prey.

Bluebirds on power pole box (Photo by Mark Bonta)

Bluebirds on power pole box (Photo by Mark Bonta)

Knowing all this I was not surprised to watch a weasel run from our garage a couple hundred feet above our house across our driveway to the bluebird box on an electric pole and into the field grasses. The bluebirds had been feeding young but disappeared shortly thereafter and when I checked, the nest was empty.

Still, long-tailed weasels have plenty of enemies including red and gray foxes, coyotes, bobcats, rough-legged hawks, great horned and barred owls, domestic cats and dogs, large snakes and humans. And not all weasels’ hunts are successful as Mark observed.

A meadow jumping mouse (Photo by the Seney Natural History Association on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A meadow jumping mouse (Photo by the Seney Natural History Association on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Early the following evening at 7:45, he set out for a walk in First Field. Suddenly, right at his feet, a long-tailed weasel chased a mouse, totally ignoring Mark. But then the mouse jumped away. It was a meadow jumping mouse, another favorite prey item, but the weasel couldn’t seem to pick up the mouse’s scent even though it kept trying. In the meantime, the meadow jumping mouse was long gone. Finally, the weasel gave up and headed deep into the field for other prey.

That was the last we saw of long-tailed weasels because the grasses and wildflowers on our home grounds and First Field had grown tall enough to hide all small and even medium-sized mammals. But throughout the spring and summer, I would often observe the birds and squirrels in our overgrown front yard scolding and looking down to the ground and I wondered if they were seeing a weasel.

The long-tailed weasel, also called the New York weasel, big stoat, and ermine, is the most common and largest of the three weasel species in Pennsylvania. But unlike the short-tailed weasel and least weasel, which are the true ermines, turning white in winter, the long-tailed weasel only does so in the extreme northern part of our state. It is also the widest ranging weasel in the Western hemisphere, living in all life zones from alpine to tropical except desert from central Canada south through the United States except for the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, and south through Central and South America to Peru and Bolivia.

It is 12 to 17 inches long including its 3.2 to 6.3 inches-long tail. The male’s home range is 25 to 60 acres and includes more than one female. While normally a male may cover 600 feet in hunting, a female covers half that range most days and nights.

The male mates in midsummer when a female is receptive for three to four days, but the embryos only continue to develop in early spring, a process called delayed implantation. So even though gestation is on average 279 days, it takes only 27 days for the embryos to become blind newborns with long white hair and weighing as much as hummingbirds. Altogether, there are four to eight young born in a single litter in April or May.

An adult weasel carrying its infant (Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

An adult weasel carrying its infant (Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

At three weeks old, they are trilling and squeaking, like the adults do, they can crawl out of their nest, and their teeth are sharp enough to eat the meat the female has supplied them. Their eyes open at five weeks, they look more like adults, and they are weaned. They are also eating their weight in food daily.

The female continues to bring food to her offspring and takes them hunting until midsummer when they are then on their own. The young females are already sexually mature and mate, but the young males are not sexually mature until they are a year old.

Every time I briefly glimpse a long-tailed weasel, I am reminded of the old children’s song “Pop goes the Weasel,” but after doing a little research, I learned that it was the nonsense name of a popular dance in Victorian England especially in the 1850s. There are many versions of the jig’s lyrics but each verse ends with “Pop Goes the Weasel,” and none had anything to do with the animal.

Still, weasels do pop their heads up when disturbed and so I’ll end this account with the song we sang as children: “All around the cobbler’s bench, the monkey chased the weasel, the monkey thought twas all in fun, pop, goes the weasel.”

 

SGL#166 Beaverdam Wetland

On a rainy Sunday afternoon in early October, my husband Bruce and I joined fellow members of our Juniata Valley Audubon Society on a field trip to SGL#166.

George Mahon, a member of the Juniata Valley Audubon Society, in the Beaverdam area

George Mahon, a member of the Juniata Valley Audubon Society, in the Beaverdam area (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

This 11,776-acre game land includes the Beaverdam Wetland Biological Diversity Area (BDA), which is tucked in a remote wooded valley in southern Blair County between Canoe and Brush mountains and forms the headwaters of Canoe Creek. And it lives up to its name because beavers still occupy the creek and wetlands.

Since Beaverdam Road is only open during big game seasons to a parking lot four miles from the game land’s southern boundary, we had a reasonably short hike on the gravel road to reach the Beaverdam area.

The rain stopped when we started off through a diverse upland hardwood forest that includes such trees as American basswood, sugar maple, and white oak, as well as limestone-loving yellow or chinquapin oak and the thicket-forming shrub or small tree American bladdernut that favors moist, floodplain forests and stream banks.

A winterberry growing along the trail

A winterberry growing along the road (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

From the road I saw invasive stiltgrass and garlic mustard and occasionally a fern understory, but according to the Beaverdam Wetland BDA report, this forest also contains the usual invasive multiflora rose, Japanese barberry, and European privet as well as the native spicebush and black haw shrubs. We also stopped to admire a young American chestnut tree, a patch of partridgeberry and a winterberry, covered with red berries.

The BDA report lists a wide variety of spring wildflowers in the forest such as blue cohosh, wild ginger, jack-in-the-pulpit, mayapples, false Solomon’s seal, yellow fairy bells, and sweet cicely.

We were in, what I later learned from Justin Vreeland, Regional Wildlife Management Supervisor for the Southcentral Region of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, is the Canoe Creek Old Forest Unit (OFU), a 3,922-acre portion of the game land managed for late-successional forest attributes.

A view of Canoe Creek in the Canoe Creek State Park, downstream from the Old Forest Unit

A view of Canoe Creek in the Canoe Creek State Park, downstream from the Old Forest Unit (Photo by David Brossard in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

In addition to protecting the Canoe Creek riparian zone, it is hoped that this contiguous tract of mature hardwood forest will attract many forest-interior and riparian birds of conservation interest including Acadian flycatchers, blackburnian, black-throated green, black-throated blue, worm-eating, Kentucky and cerulean warblers, Louisiana waterthrushes, red-shouldered and broad-winged hawks, scarlet tanagers, wood thrushes, and yellow-throated vireos.

During our visit our bird list was meager—gray catbird, blue jay, eastern towhee, field sparrow and ruby-crowned kinglet—due to the weather and because most of the previously mentioned forest birds were already on their way south for the winter.

The beaver pond in the wetland area

The beaver pond in the wetland area (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

Once we reached the wetland complex with beaver ponds on either side of the road, the trees and shrubs changed to what the BDA report describes as “a mosaic of graminoid [grassy] meadow, shrubland and palustrine [wetland] forest communities.” The BDA report adds that “the floodplain holds an especially interesting palustrine woodland with a high diversity of plant species,” such as poison sumac, royal, interrupted and marsh ferns, white turtlehead, yellow marsh marigold, five sedge and two grass species.

We saw the shrub buttonbush and the vine virgin’s-bower, both wetland species, as well as thickets of alder. The bark of the latter is sometimes eaten by beavers, although they prefer aspens above all, followed to a lesser degree by willows, but they will eat the bark of other tree species if neither aspen nor willow are available. In spring and summer months, they switch to non-woody vegetation especially grasses and aquatic plants.

For instance, a study in Mississippi found in the stomachs of beavers material from 42 tree species, 36 genera of green plants, four kinds of woody vines and a lump of grasses, according to Ben Goldfarb in his engaging book Eager, the Surprising Secret Life of Beaver and Why They Matter. He writes that “beavers are among our closest ecological and technological kin” because both humans and beavers are “wildly creative tool users who settle near water, share a fondness for elaborate infrastructure, and favor fertile valley bottoms carved by low-gradient rivers.”

Before Europeans arrived in North America, researchers calculated that the continent had between 15 and 250 million beaver ponds. “The Lehigh River,” Goldfarb writes, was “almost choked with beaver dams, which helped form the ‘Great Swamp’ at its headwaters…” Beavers still change the landscape and by doing that create prime songbird habitat.

A beaver dam

A beaver dam (Photo by Tom Gill on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

In another study in coastal Maryland back in 2000, researchers found that a single beaver pond slashed the discharge of total nitrogen by 18%, phosphorus by 21%, and total suspended solids—waterborne particles classified as a pollutant by the Clean Water Act—by 27%.

These clever engineers build their dams for safety from predators—black bears and coyotes in our area—shelter from weather, and food storage. Propelled in water by their webbed feet, they can hold their breath for 15 minutes, have transparent eyelids that allow them to see underwater, and a second set of fur-lined lips behind their upper and lower chisel-shaped teeth, that enable them to chew and drag wood without drowning.

Beaver fur consists of two-inch-long coarse guard hairs over a soft, thick, buoyant and waterproof underfur. A Scrabble-letter-sized patch of it has as much as 126,000 individual hairs, more than we have on our heads. Their flat, scaly tails are rudders and alarm systems and they have a net of tightly meshed blood vessels that can regulate their temperature.

A beaver at work

A beaver at work (Photo by Tim Lumley on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

They fell trees by balancing on their back legs with their tails beneath their bodies, and use their large teeth to chip away at the trunk until the tree falls. Then they gnaw off the branches and cut the trunk into manageable pieces before hauling them off to their building site. Researchers report that 62% of the trees beavers cut fall in the direction of the dam they are building. They peel their lodge or dam sticks and eat the inner bark before weaving them into their constructions.

The dams they build can be as small as a couple feet to half-mile-long dikes. A family unit of between four and ten consisting of mating adults, newborn kits, and yearlings can build and keep up more than 12 dams and change a narrow stream into a broad chain of ponds. They also construct burrows and lodges where they sleep, raise kits and winter. Since they don’t hibernate the adults spend the winter dragging sticks and roots from their submerged larder to feed their family.

Needless to say, we didn’t see any beavers during our field trip. Vreeland hopes to develop higher-quality beaver habitat along Canoe Creek by planting aspens.

The Canoe Furnace used trees from the Canoe Valley as fuel

The Canoe Furnace used trees from the Canoe Valley as fuel (Photo in the Penn State Special Collections in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

There have always been beavers in this valley, although trees were first cut as early as 1807-1809 and into the 1870s to fuel Canoe and Etna iron furnaces. A lumber railroad operated in the upper Canoe Creek watershed and mining railroads along the southern ridge.

Since that time, at least one lumber company early in the twentieth century “turned [the valley] from a splendid forest to a desert waste,” according to outdoor writer and hunter, Harry P. Hays, who frequented the valley then. He also visited Margaret Aurandt, whose grandfather, John Hancuff, was the first settler in the valley in the early nineteenth century.

Aurandt was born in 1866 and lived in the valley most of her life, the last 17 years—from 1912 to 1929— alone and on her own, “her friends the trees, birds, flowers, animals, and other things of the forest. Her home stood at the edge of a magnificent stand of white pine trees, where the mid-day sun could only send scattered shafts of gold.” The logging “was a great blow to the lonely woman, who grieved deeply, and was bereft of much of the former joy of her woodland life,” Hays writes.

One hundred years have passed since the logging occurred. I think Aurandt would be pleased to learn of the establishment of the Canoe Creek Old Forest Unit, which Vreeland hopes will benefit many mature-forest-dependent species including a wide variety of birds such as northern goshawks, wild turkeys, and winter wrens, as well as mammals—fishers, silver-haired bats, white-tailed deer, black bears, gray and southern flying squirrels.

Furthermore, according to the comprehensive management plan for the OFU (shared by Mr. Vreeland), officials want to “promote late-successional forest conditions on higher quality soils.” Such forests “are rare because these historically were converted to agricultural land uses or subject to multiple timber harvests.” For this reason, large parts of the OFU are on good growing sites for both hardwood and conifer forests. The plan also calls for providing “an extensive area of unfragmented forest,” although it is now bisected by the game land’s road and a 100-meter-wide electric right-of-way corridor.

Still, the OFU is unique in southcentral Pennsylvania, and Vreeland says in an email, “I firmly believe if we are to conserve wildlife diversity, we need to maintain forests, to include areas largely left to nature’s processes, on an array of soil types, including productive ones, because these will produce different structural and compositional characteristics than a similarly aged forest on poorer soils.”

 

The Glory Days of September

After the slow, hot days of summer, September with its often cooler, drier days is a welcome relief.

A chestnut-sided warbler in the fall

A chestnut-sided warbler in the fall (Photo by Kaaren Perry on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Most of the fair-weather songbirds are still here, but some are already on the move by the beginning of the month. I looked out on a wet day in early September and caught a flush of birds taking shelter in the juniper tree beside my study window.

I easily identified a black-and-white warbler, black-throated green warbler, blue-headed vireo, two red-eyed vireos and a black-capped chickadee. But one bird stumped me. It turned out to be a first fall female chestnut-sided warbler, according to my Peterson bird guide, what he once called one of the “confusing fall warblers,” those that no longer sport the bright colors of spring. They are mostly the males but also include females and the young of the year.

In addition, with no need to attract mates, most male songbirds no longer sing which makes identifying them even more challenging. An exception is the common yellowthroat that is still singing his distinctive “witchedy, witchedy” song in mid-September. He also retains his black mask but neither the olive-brown female nor their young—all with yellow throats and breasts—have masks.

A yellow-rumped warbler in the fall

A yellow-rumped warbler in the fall (Photo by Ryan Mandelbaum on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I’m not a keen birder, like two of my sons, so I am content to leave the sorting of the puzzling birds to them. Still, I appreciate yellow-rumped warblers that visit our First Field in flocks. They may be mostly brown and white in fall but both sexes and the immatures always sport bright yellow rumps.

Ovenbirds too remain the same, looking much like thrushes except for the orange patch lined in black atop their heads. In September the adult birds have left for their wintering grounds in Mexico, Central America or the West Indies, and their offspring have to manage on their own. They are much bolder than their parents and continue walking on the woods floor when I encounter them.

A chipmunk in a Pennsylvania forest

A chipmunk in a Pennsylvania forest (Photo by Brian Henderson on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

One beautiful September day I sat inside our three-acre deer exclosure on Turtle Bench watching chipmunks, including one that had a hole at the base of a witch hazel tree a couple feet from the bench. But first one young ovenbird, followed by a second one, walked past and poked on and under the leaves searching for food. The first one ranged back and forth and then wandered off but the second ovenbird stayed near the bench probing at dead leaves. The youngster leaped up several times to snatch insects from a red oak seedling, but eventually it also wandered away. And all the while numerous chipmunks chased and called, ignoring me just as the ovenbirds had.

I’m never happier than when I can watch wildlife unaware of or uncaring of my presence. The easiest mammals to watch on our mountain are porcupines. One September morning I was almost to the top of our First Field Trail when I spotted a large, probably male, porcupine heading my way. I moved to the side of the mossy trail as he stumped past. Then I decided to follow him.

He sniffed at ferns as he passed them and clambered over or under fallen trees. He seemed bent on moving rapidly straight into the upper end of the exclosure fence. Since I was several hundred feet from one of the three gates into the exclosure, I paralleled him on the trail outside.

Occasionally, he stopped and sniffed but kept walking fast. He reached the Turtle Bench area where I had been sitting only moments before. I carefully opened the gate and eased my way into the exclosure. He sniffed around the base of our 1812 red oak tree and then headed directly toward me. I moved aside as quietly as I could, but the dried leaves crunched beneath my feet and he was alerted. He looked up, sniffed in my direction, and I could hear the clattering of his teeth as he fanned his quill-filled tail. Still, I didn’t move and he made several attempts to come toward me, clearly wanting to go through the gate area and back to the First Field Trail. Finally, he gave up, turned, and walked down through the middle of the exclosure.

A porcupine on the forest floor

A porcupine on the forest floor (Photo by Steven Kersting on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I let him get ahead of me before quietly following. He circled a few trees sniffing and then sniffed and reared up on his hind legs like a woodchuck. Again he started toward me, but then turned and disappeared into a large area of horse balm and spotted touch-me-nots and flushed a young ovenbird. I assumed the porcupine either hid there until I left or went out through the fence.

Even though he knew something—a possible threat—was nearby, he didn’t climb a tree to escape as porcupines usually do. At 20 feet away, I had heard his warning teeth clacking. He seemed to have excellent hearing and sense of smell, but he showed no interest in food like a porcupine I had watched in the summer carefully picking and eating Pennsylvania smartweed from a large patch of stiltgrass.

I decided he might have been tracking a pre-estrous female. According to Uldis Roze, in his book The North American Porcupine, mid-September to mid-October is the mating time for porcupines, and males begin by following odor plumes sent out by pre-estrous females. Since females are only in heat 8-to-12 hours a year, males like to be on site several days in advance, guarding a female by climbing into her tree and waiting on a lower branch, sniffing the air or her branch to see if she is ready to accept him. The males often wait several days and sometimes compete with other males for her acceptance. The porcupine I followed did rub his head at the base of several large trees leaving his own scent I assumed, although Roze didn’t mention this action in his book.

Monarch butterflies on goldenrod

Monarch butterflies on goldenrod (Photo by Rachel Laubhan / USFWS on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Once I lost sight of the porcupine, I walked over to our 37-acre First Field, which was covered with goldenrod and asters. Dozens of monarch butterflies nectared on the wildflowers along with pearl crescents, smaller butterflies than the monarchs but also colored orange and brown. Unlike the monarch caterpillars, which fed on our common milkweed leaves in mid-summer, the pearl crescents’ food plants are asters.

We have several aster species in our woods as well as in the field. Aster means “star,” hence the words “astronomy” and “astronaut.” In September the Ojibwa Indians smoked asters in their pipes to attract deer and other game. I’m not sure how that worked, but I suppose archery hunters could try it!

Asters, with 55 species in the northeast and goldenrod with 50 are true native wildflowers. The Chippewas called tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima), the last of the five species to bloom in our field, “squirrel tail” because they grow so tall.

A red admiral butterfly on goldenrod

A red admiral butterfly on goldenrod (Photo by BBureau on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Our field of gold draws other migrating butterflies in addition to monarchs. All three are in the genus Vanessa. Most notable are red admirals, which are black with orange and white markings and migrate south for the winter. So too do the orange, black and white, painted and American ladies, all of which also nectar on the goldenrod and asters.

Green darner dragonflies hawk insects above the field on their way south. Sometimes near dusk I have counted as many as 50 hunting on our barn bank.

September is the last month to find blooming wildflowers. At the base of First Field is a wet area that is excellent for turtleheads. Their genus name Chelone is Greek for “tortoise” because their pink and white flowers look like the heads of turtles. Orange and black Baltimore checkerspot butterflies lay their eggs only on turtlehead leaves+, and those butterflies are usually not found more than 10 yards from a patch of turtleheads, as I’ve discovered. The flowers are pollinated by large bees strong enough to push their way into the turtleheads’ one-to-two-inch-long flower tubes to obtain nectar at the bases of the flowers.

A female hummingbird perched among some jewelweed

A female hummingbird perched among some jewelweed (Photo in memoriam: Steve Burt on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The spotted jewelweeds, also known as touch-me-nots, in the wetland section of our exclosure, have orange-spotted, cornucopia-shaped flowers designed to be pollinated solely by hummingbirds. Their long bills pick up pollen grains from inside the top front of one flower and drop them on the inside top of the next flower when they probe for the nectar. I spend hours there watching as ruby-throated hummingbirds zip from one jewelweed to another. I have also seen bees stealing nectar from jewelweed by biting through the backs of these flowers instead of trying to push their way through the blossoms.

Near the end of September, most of the wildflowers are fading, but by then the witch hazel and black birch understory have turned golden and the black gum trees are red, gold, orange, or pink, giving those of us who hike or hunt in the September woods a special early showing of autumn color that almost makes up for the loss of wildflowers and migrating songbirds, butterflies and dragonflies.

 

Squirrel Wars

Last autumn, our granddaughter Eva, who was staying with us for several months, started complaining about the noise in the attic above her bedroom.

The squirrel cage in our attic (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

The squirrel cage in our attic (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

At first, I dismissed it as the usual small animal noises on the roof or even in the attic. My bedroom was next to hers and I wasn’t hearing anything out of the ordinary. After all, Eva had lived in town homes all her 22 years and wasn’t used to country life in an old (1871) clapboard farmhouse.

Back in 1971, after we bought our home, we told the contractor who was putting in a second floor bathroom that we were hearing animals in the walls rolling black walnuts.

The contractor, who had worked for the previous owners for decades said, “Oh, that’s the red squirrels. This place has always had them in the walls and attic. That’s why I built the squirrel cage in the attic.”

The squirrel cage is a six foot by 12 foot construction of stiff, fine wire mesh, hardware cloth in which we were instructed to store all items that squirrels might chew on or use as nesting material.

An American red squirrel eating a nut

An American red squirrel eating a nut (Photo by Connormah in Wikipedia, Creative Commons license)

For two years the squirrels continued their lives in our home until my husband Bruce’s parents moved into our guesthouse. I mentioned the squirrels to Pop, and one day, when I came home from shopping, Pop pointed proudly to my clothesline. Hanging by their tails were two dead red squirrels that he had shot. That deed ended the rollicking in our walls and attic, and, in fact, the red squirrel population on our mountain.

Now, more than four decades later, Eva’s complaints continued. Finally, in mid-December, I too began to hear running feet above my ceiling. I wondered if the red squirrel population had recovered but had seen no sign of any in the woods. Then, on a dreary December 29 morning I heard a commotion in the attic. I opened the attic door in my study and saw not a red but an eastern gray squirrel peering down at me. It had used the juniper tree outside my study window as a springboard to the eaves where it had chewed a hole into the attic.

Our caretaker, Troy, repaired the eaves, but he worried that the squirrel might be trapped in the attic, so he set a live animal trap where I had seen the squirrel and baited it with shelled peanuts. The following morning I heard scrabbling in my bedroom ceiling. Troy had caught a squirrel in the trap. Later he released it several miles from our home and re-set the trap.

A gray squirrel at a bird feeder

A gray squirrel at a bird feeder (Photo by Orest Ukrainsky in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

In the meantime, I battled gray squirrels at our three bird feeders hanging from our back porch and on the ground below where they gobbled up most of the birdseed I spread for the birds. Never in all the years we lived here had we had so many squirrels at our feeders. Our dozens of black walnut trees had had few black walnuts, and the acorn crop in our forest had been sparse for the second year in a row.

Meanwhile the squirrel wars continued in the attic. The peanuts were eaten night after night in the trap but no creature was caught. On the morning of January 13 I watched a squirrel climb the juniper tree, stopping occasionally to eat some snow. I alerted Bruce and he saw the squirrel leap on to the roof and come into the attic by way of a new hole it had chewed near the old, patched one.

Troy climbed the ladder to patch the new hole and carefully examined the eaves around the house for new holes but found none. Later, he returned with a trail camera tied to a heavy paint can that he put near the live animal trap. He baited the trap with a plastic cylinder peppered with small holes and filled with shelled peanuts.

At 2:00 a.m. I heard a squirrel run across my bedroom ceiling. The trap was not sprung and the cylinder was gone. I began to think we had Einstein squirrels in residence.

Game cam image of a gray squirrel in an animal trap in our attic

Game cam image of a gray squirrel in an animal trap in our attic (Photo courtesy of Troy and Paula Scott)

That evening Troy came by to check his camera. It looked as if three gray squirrels, one flying squirrel, and a short-tailed shrew had figured out how to get into the trap, grab the capsule and/or previously the peanuts, and escape without springing the trap.

I wasn’t too concerned about the flying squirrel. Apparently, southern flying squirrels sometimes live in attics, “gain[ing] access through windows, crevices under eaves, and similar apertures to the attics of homes,” according to one researcher as quoted in Flying Squirrels: Gliders in the Dark by Nancy Wells-Gosling, p.112. Probably they are the creatures that I do sometimes hear in the attic or walls, but their sounds can’t be compared to the noise of gray squirrels.

A short-tailed shrew

A short-tailed shrew (Photo by Gilles Gonthier in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The short-tailed shrew, on the other hand, was a puzzle. They do eat plant food, including corn and beechnuts during the winter, and, judging by our attic shrew, shelled peanuts as well. Still these are burrowing animals not known to live in houses, although I once found one in a bucket in our basement.

The weather worsened with cold and snow, and we declared the attic war a stalemate. Troy’s last check of his trail cams showed only one flying squirrel left in the attic. Besides, it was dangerous for Troy to use the ladder, and we hoped his latest eave repair would deter any more destruction by the gray squirrels.

But the squirrel war outside continued. After an eight-inch snowstorm on January 19, followed by minus one degree Fahrenheit the next day, the birds and squirrels were desperate for food especially since ice-covered snow was as deep as a foot in the forest.

From two above zero on January 21, the temperature rose above freezing, and it rained for two days, and then the thermometer dropped to 22 degrees. Our feeders and the ground below was swamped by 15 bird species and at least seven hungry gray squirrels. They were joined in the dawn light by a large cottontail rabbit.

Feeder birds blanketing the snow

Feeder birds blanketing the snow (Photo by John in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

To give more ground-feeding birds a chance against the squirrels, I started throwing birdseed out on the frozen snow on the opposite side of the house near the veranda. This worked for a couple days until the squirrels caught on and managed to dominate both feeding areas. However, on the last day of January it was seven degrees below zero. Birds, especially the white-throated, song, and American tree sparrows and dark-eyed juncos, blanketed the ground below the back porch and on the veranda side, but the squirrels gave up earlier than usual.

The continual snow, rain, and freezing that characterized most of February brought more gray squirrels to the feeding areas. But most returned to their tree nests in the forest every evening. The two most aggressive ones stayed close to the food. One lived beneath our generator near the back porch and the other stayed in the juniper tree even when it was snowing hard. I assumed they were two of the original attic dwellers.

By February 23 we had 11 gray squirrels, and they began attacking our two tube feeders. One squirrel pulled out the plastic guards around the holes of a new red metal feeder I had received at Christmas and ate all the seeds. Never had I had to fight such determined and bold squirrels. Another climbed up our back porch storm door, trying to get inside late one morning while our son Dave was eating in the kitchen.

A relatively squirrel-proof bird feeder hangs on our back porch (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

A relatively squirrel-proof bird feeder hangs on our back porch (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

Finally, the squirrels defeated me, especially the three biggest, boldest pests that never quit for the day, and I removed the tube feeders, leaving only a much larger, relatively squirrel-proof feeder to feed the birds. Still, they mobbed the porch, and when I threw out pounds of mixed seeds for the birds, the squirrels ate most of it.

Our outdoor squirrel war continued even into mid-March, and I acknowledged utter defeat by the 11 squirrels that never left until the snow melted.

On the other hand, we never heard or saw another gray squirrel in the attic so you could say that our squirrel war of 2018-2019 was a draw.