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The gift of the fungi

Rick Sinnott
Rick Sinnott photo

As I recall now, the first mysterious object I found nestled in the sunflower seeds in my bird feeder was a wizened, black mushroom.

Weeks later I noticed several bright-red rose hips in the feeder, plucked from a spray of branches my wife had gathered and artfully arranged in a tall, ceramic pot by the front door. Occasionally, I’d find a rock, each stone about the size of a peanut or walnut, lying in the seeds. 

No inanimate force conveyed those objects. The feeder is in an angle of the house protected on three sides from the wind, and the nearest tree is about 30 yards away. So nothing fell into the feeder, and the wind didn’t blow rocks, rose hips, or mushrooms into it. I am the sole custodian of the bird feeder. My wife and granddaughter love to watch the visiting birds, but I feed them.

Gifting behavior

By this process of elimination, I have deduced that an animal left the objects. My initial list of suspects was short: black-capped chickadees and black-billed magpies. Sometimes a flock of pine grosbeaks loiters about the feeder for a few weeks, and I occasionally spot a downy woodpecker or common redpoll. Only one of these species – the magpie – has the physical strength and quirkiness to deposit rocks in the feeder.

Magpies are frequent visitors. They eat seeds and small fruits like rose hips; however, magpies seldom debase themselves by eating the sunflower seeds preferred by many smaller songbirds. Like crows and ravens, magpies prefer meat. Because I like magpies, I often toss scraps of meat or fat, even the bony remains of a holiday turkey, into the feeder.

Some corvids – ravens, crows, magpies – have left objects in place of food provided by humans. Are these tokens, some form of nonverbal communication, or are the items merely discarded to pick up a tasty morsel?

Scientists have only recently become interested in the phenomenon of “gifting behavior.” John Marzluff and Tony Angell attempted to explain the intelligent, playful and deliberative behaviors of crows, ravens and magpies in "Gifts of the Crow." Their book provides several anecdotal accounts of gifting behavior.

For example, a family of crows in Port Townsend, Wash., has left a red poker chip, a safety pin, a blue glass bead, colored rubber bands, and a Cap’n Crunch figurine at a feeding site. Marzluff and Angell seem to believe that corvids practice interspecies gifting behavior. And so do I.

A fuzzy red interloper

Squirrels also eat sunflower seeds, and a northern red squirrel has annexed my bird feeder. I often see it hunched over the seeds, back to the window, its fuzzy brush of a tail curling stiffly over its back. Like other red heads, the squirrel’s hair isn’t a uniform color; most of its hairs are what zoologists call agouti, finely banded in shades of gray and brown, with a wash of cinnamon from its forehead to the tip of its tail. Glossy black eyes, emphasized by contrasting white eye rings, regard me with some suspicion.

After birds, more people feed and enjoy watching squirrels than any other wild animal. But many who feed birds don’t like squirrels. At all. Birdseed is expensive, and a squirrel can eat or cache a lot in a short period. Nearly every book about feeding birds has a chapter on how not to feed squirrels. Bird lovers, or squirrel haters – sometimes it’s a fine line – have devised hundreds of clever and diabolical means to thwart seed thievery. It’s guerrilla warfare, with squirrels often just a tactic behind in combating the counterinsurgency. 

I try not to burden animals with terms used to describe human feelings or foibles. A “greedy” squirrel is a hungry squirrel. I’ve resigned myself to feeding the hungry mammal with the more desirable birds.

I am also amused by the skirmishes fought between the rowdy gang of magpies and the squirrel that visits my feeder. The weight advantage goes to the squirrel. Squatting on the edge of the feeder, it isn’t easily discouraged or dislodged by one swooping magpie. But red squirrels are loners by nature, so magpies have the advantage of numbers, not to mention flight. Two or more magpies can chase the squirrel off any time they want.

Squirrels cache seeds and other relatively nonperishable foods to eat later. Unlike gray and fox squirrels found in the Lower 48 states – both scatter hoarders – red squirrels store spruce cones in a larder, or midden. That’s why they act so aggressively towards other red squirrels, even the opposite sex. It’s why their fervid chattering meets every moose or human who wanders into their territory. One’s winter food supply must be defended at all costs. 

A red squirrel’s midden is an extensive pile of spruce cone scales and cores with the scales and seed removed, often under a large spruce tree. Many uneaten cones are buried in the heap, which functions as a refrigerator, providing a cool, moist environment ideal for the storage of cones. A midden can store so many cones, sometimes more than a year’s supply, that female squirrels have been known to “bequeath” a midden to one of their offspring. Red squirrels also eat a lot of fungi, collecting mushrooms in autumn and wedging them in trees until dried.

Learning to share

Left in undisputed control of the feeder, my furry antagonist displays an interesting proprietary behavior. Hunched over like a sumo wrestler, the squirrel uses its front paws, palms turned up, to shadowbox the sunflower seeds – left, right, left, right – into a tall pile. Sometimes its shoveling is so vigorous that seeds fly off the feeder.

When it’s not shoveling, the squirrel hunkers on the feeder for long periods, gobbling up sunflower seeds and occasionally rushing incoming birds. Small birds fear the squirrel but, desperate to grab a seed, they take risks. Both squirrels and chickadees are capable of lightning-quick dashes and feints, swerves too swift for the human eye to record. 

I’ve often rapped my knuckles on the window, politely but firmly insisting that the squirrel allow the birds a turn at the feeder. It invariably stares at me from the corner of its eye, stares at me fixedly with a peculiar expression on its face.

Once, by accident, I caught the little rodent in a predatory frame of mind. Just as I stepped up to the window, the squirrel, who had been lurking beneath the feeder, leaped up three feet and pinned a chickadee between its paws and chisel-shaped incisors. Possibly more startled than either its victim or myself, the squirrel froze for a microsecond on the lip of the feeder, then released the bird in an explosion of muscular fur and slowly settling feathers. No doubt the squirrel had nabbed the chickadee dead to rights and would have swallowed the bird if I hadn’t intervened.

Lately, when it sees an audience, the squirrel has taken to standing erect on its hind legs to peer inside the house.

The squirrel’s yarn

Several weeks ago, during an extremely cold spell, my wife surprised the squirrel shredding a rug outside the back door. She couldn’t chase the cheeky rodent off by tapping on the window, so she opened the door and carried the rug inside. She showed it to me later. Long fibers dangled from the damaged area. I figured the squirrel was adding insulation to its nest. The rug was ruined, so we tossed it back outside on the stoop.

A few days later I noticed several new objects in the bird feeder. Supplementing the usual rocks and red rose hips, I found two small sprigs of spruce, a withered fuchsia blossom, and a couple of pale, synthetic snippets of yarn. All of the objects were piled conspicuously on the seedy slopes of the squirrel’s heap.

And I almost called this essay “The Gift of the Magpie.” I haven’t seen a magpie for weeks.

Today I found another withered mushroom. Then a weathered chunk of pink foam insulation, probably found in the woods. Food and insulation, very considerate.

I’ve begun to carry the items inside the house. I have no use for the gifts it leaves me, but they are obviously tokens of some value to the squirrel, and I do appreciate the thought.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at  rickjsinnott@gmail.com