I had long suspected that animals are a lot smarter than we think they are. Now I know it.
My conviction centers on our venerable avocado tree outside our master bedroom that spreads its lateral limbs over the roof under which my wife and I share a bed. This time of year the tree brings forth its infant fruit the size of a pregnant pea. And that brings some unwanted diners who feast on them and drop their leavings in a predawn patter on that roof above our sleeping heads.
Squirrels. At least a pair that I have come to call the Rednik Family, after a color that faintly stains their coats. Not only do they wake us before our time, they reduce our autumn harvest probably by half with their morning feasts. Clever critters, they cease their reaping during the summer months, when the fruit is hard and growing, only to return in the fall, when the avocados are ripe; then they switch to eating the soft, outsides flesh, and leave us the large and naked pits. Thanks a lot!
Their depredations are tolerable in good years when the crop is abundant. Not so in the lean years when the distribution of the bounty is unequal, and we, the legal owners of the tree (tell that to the squirrels!) go without.
My wife Timarie admits to some innocent guilt in provoking the hostilities. When she first saw them galloping atop our backyard wall, she put out some peanuts for the little charmers, who soon turned into rude guests, then insolent squatters. Our avocado tree became their Land of Canaan.
But whatever the innocent origins, we are now at war with these impudent rodents. “I don’t want to kill them,” my wife said at first, “I just want them to stop eating my avocados.” But what could we really do? Two landlubbers too old to climb a brittle-branched tree against limber acrobats confident in their arboreal superiority. To show it, they would spit the springtime seeds our way as we watched. Talk of adding insult to injury!
That’s when my wife had had enough and declared total war. Her choice of weapon was a garden hose, her strategy to catch them lolling in the tree over breakfast and give them a good dousing with a watery blast. Her success depended on surprise—rising from bed and quietly sneaking outside in her pajamas, creeping with stealth under the eaves of the house to the hose, then turning it on full force to catch them gorging themselves in our tree. The stream would send them in rapid retreat to parts unknown; and it at least reduced their share of the tree’s fruit…for a day or two maybe. Then they would be back to feast again, taking advantage of their natural camouflage and the tree’s height.
I thought we might have an ally in our dog Heidi, an athletic Golden Retriever-White Swiss Shepherd mix who tolerates not invading beasts and can run and cut like a blond flash of light. Perhaps she could rid us of these bothersome critters; chase them off for good.
One day she got the chance to test her shepherd genes. The braver of the Rednik couple had strayed deep into our patio to where he or she was enclosed on three sides by walls of the house. Watching from the window, I saw alert Heidi slink into view, to the fourth side, closing the rodent’s exit path. Only a picnic table separated them. Rednik panicked (or so I thought) and darted right. Heidi lunged left to block her way. Rednik moved laterally left to the other side of the table. Agile Heidi slid to the right to face him or her. Rednik feinted another right; Heidi fell for the fake as Rednik scurried through the open lane the dog had vacated. Heidi, frozen and barkless, stared in awe at the bushy tail that quickly vanished up the avocado tree. Well, back to herding slow, imaginary sheep, Heidi must have thought.
Last week the fray took an ominous turn. We awoke early to the customary tap of seeds falling on the roof. My wife got up immediately and launched her stealthy offensive, moving outside under the eaves toward the hose. Suddenly a racket of caws arose from a quartet of crows perched in the avocado tree, warning Rednik of approaching danger; the bushy-tailed vandal hightailed it out of range and sight. Drat! Now the birds had joined the rodents against us, become a failsafe early warning system for the pillagers.
My wife differs from me on that count; she believes the crows are her well-meaning allies, and the racket they raised was meant to alert her to the presence of the squirrel. My son says we’re both wrong, that the crows are alerting other crows, not the squirrels. He says I’m paranoid. I tell him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. (In this wacky age of conspiracy theories, I have a right to my own.)
As most wars do, this one has dragged on beyond all expectations. Who‘s winning? It certainly isn’t the bipedal pair on the king-size bed. I suppose my wife and I could sue for peace. But why should the Redniks accept? They clearly have the upper hand…and a dependable food supply for years to come. Allied now with the wise crows, they outnumber us, and, painful to admit, they outthink us. I hope in victory, they will be gracious and leave us our sharecroppers’ pittance of the great green fruit, that marvelous gift from the Aztecs.
Defeat has a way of forcing philosophical reflection on the loser. Couple that with the wisdom age brings, and I can see why they would gang up on us. Why shouldn’t they? It’s about time we took some payback from the animal kingdom for our bully behavior of all creatures great and small, and those extinct by our hand.
And, of course, I can always go to Sprouts when they have their special of three jumbos for five dollars.