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Protecting the Homeland in Winter

Bill Meredith

May 16, 1940, was a big day in my life. I was dimly aware that there was a war in Europe, but that was an abstraction; what was real was that it was my 7th birthday, and my parents had given me a BB gun. It was a Daisy carbine model, just like the pictures in the Red Ryder comic books and Boys Life that I had been drooling over for months. Ever since I was 3 and had a popgun that shot corks, my Dad had instructed me about gun safety; I knew how to carry it safely, and not to point it at people or farm animals even if it wasn't loaded. I also knew most living things were off limits, but it was OK to shoot at rats, English sparrows, or any birds that were stealing cherries. So as soon as it was out of the box I marched boldly off into the chicken yard where the cherry tree was, took aim at an unsuspecting catbird, and fired away. I was never more astonished in my life, before or since; I can still see that catbird as it folded up and dropped to the ground without a flutter. I didn't know what to think. I suppose, since I had aimed at it, I must have expected to hit it, but I hadn't anticipated the reality of killing something. It was not a pleasant feeling.

As it turned out, hitting the catbird with that first shot was a fluke; I didn't realize it at the time, but I was both nearsighted and astigmatic, and after that I rarely hit anything. Over the next few years a half-dozen English sparrows got unlucky, but most of my targets were cans and bottles in the garbage dump. Years later the BB gun was passed on to my kids until they got their own, and eventually it was left to rust in the garage among some old, unused tools. But it was not lost; a few years ago my son came across it and had it cleaned up and reconditioned. It became a birthday present for the second time, and now it resides in a state of sentimental, honored retirement in the corner of my room.

It was a tough winter this year; the season arrived late, but made up for it by being colder than normal. The cold was not a problem for birds as long as they could keep dry; but then came the snow. It started in January and continued into February in 6-inch doses, separated by freezing rains. The rains coated the trees with ice and turned the surface of the snow into an icy crust that made it nearly impossible for small birds to find food. Some 16 species of them turned up outside my kitchen window, looking for handouts. They emptied the feeder each day, and we enjoyed their company during breakfast. Everything was fine until the squirrels discovered the feeder.

As a general proposition, I have nothing against squirrels; they are admirably tough, adaptable, and interesting to watch. But I knew they had their own supplies of nuts, so I wasn't eager to buy sunflower seeds for them. More importantly, when they came to plunder the feeder, they chased the birds away. My wife pecked on the window; they ran off once or twice, but then quickly realized that she couldn't come through the glass to get them, and proceeded to ignore her.

Drastic measures were called for. My wife wanted me to get the pellet pistol, but it could have done serious damage to both the squirrels and the car parked nearby. I wanted to chase the squirrels off, but didn't want to kill them. Then I remembered the BB gun dozing peacefully in its corner. I roused it from its torpor, loaded it and sneaked out onto the porch. The squirrel on the feeder looked at me over his shoulder, sneered, and continued stuffing himself. I took careful aim and fired; and I could see the BB as it left the end of the gun and flew in a gentle arc like a weak pop fly to second base, hitting the ground about half-way to the feeder. The squirrel was startled by the noise of the gun, but not enough to leave; he watched with interest as I recocked, aimed a couple of feet higher, and fired again. This time something happened inside the aged gun; perhaps the piston that propels the missile had been stiff from lack of use, or maybe it was just the thrill of being back in the hunt again… but for whatever reason, the next BB flew with more enthusiasm, sailing over the squirrel's head and ricocheting off the drainpipe by the garage. The squirrel trotted off; he was probably full anyway.

This scene was repeated several times each day for the next few weeks. Sometimes the gun would shoot almost like new; other times the BB would float through the air as if it was attached to a parachute, and occasionally nothing came out at all. I became more determined; my wife became more aggravated. The squirrels seemed to enjoy the competition until one day I actually hit one of them. The BB didn't have enough force to penetrate the skin, but it must have stung; the squirrel jumped, directed a stream of sciurine invective at me, darted up the plum tree and disappeared over the roof of the garage.

For a while I basked in newfound respect from both the squirrels and my wife. It developed into a kind of bizarre game; I would try to ease the door open without the hinges squeaking and slip out to the porch. The birds, whom I was trying to help, insisted on warning the squirrels, and they would provide running targets. I didn't keep score, but I probably hit them about one shot in 20 attempts. My wife feigned contempt, but secretly she was getting drawn in. One morning when I came in to breakfast I found the gun on her desk, and she admitted she had tried it. She claimed she had hit a squirrel, and when it didn't return that day she began to feel guilty. "Maybe I killed it," she said, staring forlornly out the window. Luckily, I was behind her, so she couldn't see the expression on my face. I had seen her try to shoot before… she held the gun like a broom she was trying to skoosh a mouse with, and I knew the only danger to the squirrel was that it might die laughing… so, informed by nearly 50 years of marriage, I said nothing. The next day, the squirrel was back, with a self-confident smirk on its face; it even brought a couple of friends to watch. The game went on.

Eventually the snow melted, the days got longer, buds started to swell, hormones began to flow, and the squirrels turned their attention to more serious matters. Birds still come to the feeder, but it isn't a matter of survival to them now; they, too, are beginning to think of other things. The squirrels also stop by the feeder occasionally; they will probably be bringing their kids to see it before long. The game will resume next winter; in the meantime, the homeland is secure.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith