Friday, January 18, 2008

Squirrels with Non-glare lenses, Butch, plus Fluffy and the Predator

Welcome to Wisconsin. Yes, folks it's snowing yet again. Possibly 8 inches worth. Yes, no question it could be worse. I admit snow is much better than freezing rain and better than what is predicted for the weekend which is 5 degrees. That's right, one, two, three, four, five degrees F. But whether it's the glare off all that snow, or just sun in their eyes Squirrels are prepared. The lenses of their eyes have evolved with a tint that is anti-glare. How cool is that? They never have to wonder where their sunglasses are. They're built in.

After the squirrels cleared out--Wait, have you ever noticed that squirrels normally go to bed three hours before sundown? Well they do. Unless for instance someone shows up with nuts repeatedly very late in the day. Then the squirrels adjust. I mean, we're talking nuts here, the food item that makes a squirrel's life worth living.

Now back to the beginning. After the squirrels cleared out, and evidently so had the hawk, some of the Junco flock, mostly males, appeared for a late afternoon feeding. There they were pecking efficiently away and then swoosh. They were gone.

All except Butch, that is.

And in his traditional stance besides even with his feet buried. He's ready to take on whatever it is. Nothing appears, so he hops down on the ground and eats the seeds the other guys are missing.

Then I look down and who should I see, but Doorstep Dove. Instead of sitting on top of the step she's now below it. That way she has quite a pile of spilled seed to eat while she sits. Earlier in the day she and Friend visited together. The rest of the flock is still lying very low.

Soon Butch and the gang and even Doorstep take off for night roosts and the sun flashes off the roof of the feeder. All's very quiet except the sound of snow rustling against snow carried by the wind.

Notice there is virtually no snow? That's because this took place Wednesday night, before the latest snowstorm.
9:13PM Here is Fluffy. I looked out and there he was snuffling around in the seed--chewing. I watched for awhile and then suddenly he turned and hurried, well hurried casually, he is an Opossum, back in the direction he'd come. I was sure it wasn't me but didn't know what had set him off.
10:46PM I peeked out the curtain and Fluffy was back again. But Fluffy was in a stance which I'd never seen him in before. As you've been looking at his photographs you know that Fluffy rarely takes his nose more than a few inches above the ground. He just doesn't, unless he's into the possum arched back hissing mode.
In this case Fluffy was standing erect, four legs straight, no shuffling around. He was perfectly still with his nose pointing directly in front of him. Then without warning he ran, yes ran, at an actual animal running speed, something I'd not seen him do before either and whisked out of view to the left of the door. I leaned into the glass and peered into the dark. Where had he gone? Then I glanced down. WHAHHHH!


I regain my breath. That is Orange Kitty.

Orange Kitty is staring at my ankles for some reason. Or perhaps he's been attracted by a slight movement as I am standing in the dark.
Let me tell you about Orange Kitty. I've never managed to get a photograph of Kitty before. Whenever Kitty sees me he runs. I've never reprimanded Kitty. I've never done anything to Kitty. Why does Kitty run? Because Orange Kitty knows he's guilty. Because he knows he's being BAD! For instance, I'll look casually out the door in the late afternoon, and there he is, sitting smack dab in the middle of of the feeding area. Tail curled around his fluffy bottom just waiting for a tasty bird to land. Now kitty is not hungry. Kitty is owned by someone and what you're looking at isn't just fur. There's a hefty cat under all that fluff. No, he's not hungry. What he is, is a predator. Fluffy likes killing things and eating them. Then he'll go home in the morning, have some crunchy cat chow and sleep until it's time to go out and hunt again.
I hadn't realized it, but cats not only predate birds they also have been known to go after possums. There is actually a "Possum Society", a non-profit that rehabs and cares for unreleasable marsupials. And one of the chief predators of possums in town besides cars, more on that later, are domestic pets. In this case though, it looks to me that Fluffy and Orange Kitty have an understanding to stay out of each other's way.
Orange Kitty figures out it's me and scoots away. I look out an hour later and way to the left--

Making his slow shuffling, snuffling way back towards the spilled seed under the feeder, is Fluffy.

When I accidentally make a noise in the house while watching, if it's a sharp loud noise Fluffy may startle, but he pauses and then continues to go about his chewing. Now I know he doesn't see or hear very well but if he startles he has heard me. So why doesn't he take off?

I experiment, making noises. He doesn't really care. I unlatch the door and give it a heave. It really is difficult to open and quite noisy (the tracks do have a good bit of seed in them after all) so the door makes a racket before it finally does slide. But I don't open it yet. I've got to test the theory. I flick indoor and outdoor lights. I stomp. He mostly doesn't react and even if he does, it's not enough. Why?
Why had he fled the cat, who is on little soft silent cat feet and keeping to the shadows? Why doesn't he run from me? Then I realize that he is unlikely to run from anything that doesn't smell like a predator. I'm behind glass so he can't smell me! Therefore without the scent, no matter the racket he doesn't take off.
Could that be why so many possum are run down by cars? They can run rapidly when they're motivated. I just saw him do it. The stance, the directed olfactory organ. Fluffy is highly motivated by scent. His other sensory organs aren't wired to set him off very easily or perhaps not at all. A car doesn't smell like a predator therefore he isn't wired and therefore motivated to respond in a way that isn't dangerous. No doubt many possums get run down before they ever learn that cars are dangerous. A problem for many young mammals but it seems even more so for this species. In fact how does a possum learn a car is dangerous without getting run over and then it's obviously too late?
I've actually seen squirrels look both ways before crossing a road. It wouldn't do a possum any good ,they don't see well enough. Hearing? Perhaps eventually but obviously not an immediate cue. Luck?

Let's just hope Fluffy stays out of the street, if he hasn't figured it out yet. Back to that question, how is it that possums do figure it out?
I'll just have to wait and watch.
Donegal Browne

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