We’ve been feeding the squirrels peanuts.  They have corn and nut feeders in the yard as well, but the peanut feeding is a training exercise, a hobby, an amusement.  We sit on the porch a few times a day, make a sucking/clicking sound to draw them in (as close to squirrel language as we know), and then toss them shelled peanuts one at a time.  Doing so has taught us a great deal about squirrel behavior and our own limitations with cross-species communication.  I’m not sure if we are training them or they are training us.

As the number of squirrels who answer the call has increased over the past couple weeks and as their individual demands for food have also increased, I’ve been reminded of a Park Fair event we attended last month.  It was a summer “festival” sort of thing with the obligatory face painting, local folk singers, and fire safety demonstrations.  In addition, this fair had tons of free giveaways–hot dogs, water, imitation fitbits, all sorts of things.  The main attraction was Post Cereal who was giving away full boxes of sweet breakfast goodness.  They unloaded semis full of boxes.  It was almost too good to be true.  Who knew there was a Nutter Butter Cereal?

The line for the cereal was long, but it moved pretty quickly.  Still, people complained about having to wait for free stuff.  When people arrived at the Post tables, they were shown a dazzling array of about 15 cereals to choose from.  “One per person,” I heard repeated over and over.  Right.  People showed up with wagons.  One woman removed her toddler from a stroller to make room for more boxes.  People walked past the tables to grab full packed containers of boxes.  Some brought every child they knew to load up.  One woman scolded her children to hurry up so they could take their booty home and get back in time to load up again.

Families could live on their free cereal stashes for months.  Tens of thousands of boxes disappeared.  I heard voices complain when one of the peanut butter cereals was missing.  I imagined black market breakfast stores opening in the neighborhood.  All around the park, half empty boxes of cereal were thrown on the ground.  Free doesn’t always bring out the best in people.

To be fair, I took two and pointed at someone else’s kid behind me as justification.

The squirrels aren’t that bad yet.  They aren’t as evolved a species as we are. Mostly, they are polite recipients.  They eat a few until they are full–snatching them off the ground and retreating a little closer to a tree to eat with their backs turned toward us and their tails up over their heads, as if they expect us to grab the nuts back.  Then they grab a few more for ceremonial burial.  Some are getting better at anticipating the trajectory and bounce of a thrown nut.  Others still sniff around at the ground, walking right past several nuts.  All of them litter the shells as if they were free boxes of cereal.

Most are peaceful eaters, happy to wait in line.  A few meaner ones do chase the little ones off, though, to try to get an advantage.  We tell them there is plenty for everyone to share, but they don’t seem to understand–or care.  And what started as a passive acceptance of our charity has become a bit more demanding.  A couple of the squirrels come right up the steps if they feel they have waited too long to be served.  At least one of them ate through a little bench on the porch when we  weren’t home, hoping to find where we keep the nuts. 

What started as two or three, has now become a group of about a dozen–eight from nearby, the rest from across the street.  As hard as we try, it is difficult to tell one from another.  I remember my mother memorizing kids’ costumes at Halloween so she could scold those that came back for seconds.  We can’t do that.  We’re more easily fooled.

I expect the trend to continue until we have hundreds of squirrels coming from all over town knocking at our door, demanding more and better nuts.  God knows what would happen if I gave them some of the delicious Nutter Butter cereal I got from the friendly folks at Post.  Maybe I should have grabbed more boxes to share with the squirrels.  I’ll keep you up to date as the situation unfolds.