Gray squirrels, Kudzu bugs and weather

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When we moved into our newly-constructed house about 25 years ago, during spring and early summer songbirds of several species were frequently heard and seen, including three vireos, three warblers, Cardinals, Wood Thrushes, Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, and Indigo Buntings. At night we could hear Screech Owls and several Chuck-Wills-Widows (aka Whippoorwills). Flying squirrels were regular visitors to our bird-feeding platforms.

Notably scarce were Gray Squirrels, probably because the former owner allowed hunting on the property. I do not hunt on the property, nor does anyone else, and through the years the population of Gray Squirrels has undergone a tremendous increase. They outcompete with most seed-eating birds. Flying Squirrels, ‘gentile sprites of the night,’ no longer visit the feeders. The only birds that haven’t declined in number are Cardinals, Titmice, Chickadees, and Carolina Wrens.

Gray Squirrels not only compete with many birds for food, but they are undesirable in other ways. They appropriate for their own use tree cavities several birds rely on for nesting. Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Flickers, and Screech Owls are among the latter. The large Pileated Woodpeckers are probably able to defend their tree holes against would-be Gray Squirrel intruders. The cavities used by Chickadees and Titmice are too small to be of interest to the squirrels. Vireos, warblers, and Wood Thrushes are not seed-eaters, and are not cavity nesters. The swamp-dwelling Prothonotary Warbler, a cavity-nester, is exceptional. The decline in some of the birds is conceivably attributable in some degree to another undesirable habit of Gray Squirrels. Unbeknownst to most people who are fond of birds, Gray Squirrels will feed on the eggs and newly hatched young of songbirds. Even the eggs and young of Robins are preyed upon by Gray Squirrels.

If all the aforementioned is insufficient to indict Gray Squirrels as environmentally harmful, consider another one of the species’ bad habits, that of their tendency to chew on electric wires. On three occasions, the transformer on my property has blown a fuse.Each time, when the power company man arrived to replace the fuse, a fried squirrel was lying on the ground underneath the transformer.

Recently I saw a product,Old Doc’s Squirrel Chaser, in a catalog guaranteed to repel squirrels.  I placed an order and received three cloth bags containing the purported repellent. I placed one of the bags on my feeding platform and five minutes later a squirrel was sitting on the feeder a few inches from the ‘chaser’ chomping down on the bird seed. I registered a complaint and was refunded what I’d paid.

About 10 days ago I decided to declare war on the damnable tree rats. I embarked on a trap-and-relocate effort using a Have-a-Heart live trap. So far I have trapped and relocated seven of the rascals. I release them in an uninhibited tract about seven miles away. It is not as densely forested as my land, so maybe Red-tailed Hawks can keep the population in check. I’m still seeing squirrels, so I shall continue to remove them until the population is at an acceptably low level.

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A widespread rumor circulating in the parts is that somehow Auburn University is responsible for the kudzu bugs infesting the area. Janie overheard some students who believed the rumor, and last week a Carl Gregory Ford sales rep. was complaining about the bugs He said, “They are attracted to the white cars on our lot. I see hundreds of them on some cars. I believe the folks at the University made a mistake bringing them in.”

I assured him that the University was not responsible and that the bugs first showed up in the Atlanta area and most entomologists believe they arrived there in a plane from Japan. I emailed the head of the Entomology unit at Auburn and suggested that he or one of his staff write letters to the local papers, and to The Plainsman dispelling the rumor and providing the facts of the matter. He has not responded. I have written about the bugs in at least two of my columns, but relatively few Auburn residents subscribe to this newspaper. My friend Chuck Browne writes a column in the Opelika-Auburn News, and by copy of this column I am suggesting that he address the subject in one of his commentaries.  Chuck is the Lee  County Extension Service Coordinator.

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“Record breaking weather conditions plague the entire country” an Internet site reports. Record summer ice loss in the Arctic in 2012. March 2012 warmest on record. Record snowfall in Northeast on Memorial Day. Flooding in formerly drought-stricken south-central Texas, etc., etc. The deniers contend that the climate’s been changing long before humans ever existed. It has indeed, but not nearly as rapidly as it has in recent decades. Those that deny that human activity has nothing to do with climate change remind me of the three blind mice. Sooner or later they or their offspring will regret their blindness.

Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn Univ. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

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