How Do You Tell Animals Apart?

image of a white-headed downy woodpecker.

This Albino Woodpecker comes to the feeder regularly.

Several months ago, we looked out our dining room window and saw an unusual woodpecker enjoying suet at a feeder only a few feet away. It was a downy but it’s head was almost completely white, unlike all others of the same species we’ve seen.

Last year we had a fox squirrel with an unusually short tail that hung around our yard for months.  We’ve also spotted other wild animals with distinctive markings unusual for their species, healed but visible wounds and other characteristics that help identify it as an individual.

The Power of Observation

Being able to identify an individual animal adds to the fun of wildlife observation. For example, from the squirrel, we learned that he or she mostly just stayed in our yard and nearby woods. We never spotted it at a neighbor’s yard. Then, one day we remarked, “We haven’t seen’ shorty tail’ for a while”. We actually never saw the animal again and assumed he or she met his end due to an accident, predator, car collision, or some other catastrophic incident.  Because we could tell him from other squirrels, we know he lived at least ten months.

The piebald woodpecker still comes to our feeder, and we’re getting to know it as an individual rather than just a generic downy. It adds to the fun of wildlife observation.

Like people, animals are individuals. At first glance, every one may look the same but with careful observation, it’s possible to spot differences in plumage, fur, size, shape, gait, and even personality that help identify it as an individual. Scientists studying animals ranging from whales to snow leopards often learn to distinguish one from another by the pattern of barnacles on a whale’s body to the markings on a cat’s fur.

It’s a totally noninvasive way of distinguishing one from another. We can do this with common yard wild animals.

Do Squirrels Ever Fall?

Squirrel climbing up a tree.

What happens when a squirrel falls?

Squirrels are amazingly agile, but they do slip and fall. It’s not common, but it happens.   Rich has seen two squirrels fall from the top of large oak trees.

One squirrel lost its footing on a huge oak tree at the Indian Creek Nature Center when Rich was walking nearby. It spread out its legs and tail and fell horizontally, hitting the ground with a “thump”. Although it fell at least 40 feet the squirrel appeared uninjured, scampered off, and climbed right back up the oak.

Another squirrel fell from an even bigger oak in our home’s backyard. It did the same as the Nature Center Squirrel and spread out its body, hit the ground, and ran right off.

Squirrels rarely fall, but once in a while, they do. Fortunately, as this YouTube video shows, they seem amazingly able to recover from a fall that would instantly kill a human.

What are some of the animals you know as individuals? Let us know!

Bird Feeder Adaptations

Excluder

Keeping Squirrels at bay

Bruce Frana, a Winding Pathways visitor, saw one of our blogs on our “squirrel proof” feeder and how we discourage squirrels from gobbling up sunflower seeds we put out for birds. He crafted a similar but much more attractive version that’s in his yard. Our contraption is a box framed with 2X2 lumber with sides of 2” x 2” wire mesh. A piece of plywood forms the roof, and we attached it to a  wooden table with a pair of hinges. The hinges let us lift the cage to sprinkle sunflower seeds inside.

It works. Sort of. Cardinals, chickadees, and nuthatches easily pass through the wire mesh to feed. Some squirrels and wild turkeys, which we like but get frustrated when they gobble up all the seed, can’t get through the mesh. Our fox squirrels are too chunky to squeeze through, but smaller gray squirrels manage to get in and gobble seeds. We could keep the grays out if we could find  1 ¾ x 1 ¾ mesh wire on the market. As far as we know it doesn’t exist, but if it did it would let birds in but exclude even the skinniest gray squirrel.

Bruce reports that his fox squirrels can’t enter either but the grays do. Here is a photo of his squirrel foiling feeder:

Do It Yourself “Squirrel Proof” Feeder!

Here is what he shared: “I have had a platform feeder for several years but, like your blog mentioned, turkeys, and even some clever squirrels, were able to get on top of it. I built (a feeder) based on the plan/picture you shared on your blog. I adapted the plan to the platform feeder I had and made some of my own modifications.

“As you can see from the pictures, I attached the structure onto the original platform by using hinges, just as your plan had done. I also put a pitched roof and handle to be able to easily lift the one end to place seed on the platform. The entire system is attached to a 2″ PVC pipe that slides over a steel post. I have had one ingenious small grey squirrel figure out how to get into the feeder and solved that problem, at least for now, by making the wire openings a bit smaller on two sides.” It works…sort of!”

Readers can go online and find “Do It Yourself” (DYI) “squirrel proof” feeder instructions. Good luck and let us know how it goes!  Thanks, Bruce Frana.

Squirrel Condominiuims

Winter is the best time to spot dens and nests.  Usually, we think of bird nests, and we see abandoned ones topped with mounds of snow along roadsides and in shrubs.  When we look up, we also spot large clusters of leaves and sticks – squirrel nests.

Squirrels make two types of nests: dens and dreys. Dens are cavities in trees and dreys are the large balls of leaves and sticks that squirrels fashion.  From the ground, these dreys look small, but they are really good sized.

Dens

Squirrel In Den

Taking in the view from the safety of a tree den.

When squirrel families mature in late summer, the young venture forth to find new lodgings.  If the population of squirrels is low and the availability of hollows in trees is high, then squirrels take the dens. These are hollow spaces inside the trunk that squirrels line with leaves and bits of fur and bark.  Squirrels do not create these hollows but use them.  Wood rot and woodpeckers create the spaces and squirrels make the most of them. Dens offer great protection from the elements and predators and they are warmer. So, squirrels conserve their energy when they must “hole up” during winter storms. When the worst of the harsh weather passes, squirrels begin to stir, digging for nuts and raiding bird feeders.

Dreys

Squirrel Condominium

Squirrel Condominium

Squirrels make their dreys near sturdy forks in branches or close to the tree trunk. They will be high up for protection from predators. Usually, a tree might support one or two squirrel nests, but occasionally, we see half a dozen scattered throughout a wide-branching deciduous tree. Squirrel condominiums. These might be secondary homes or extensions of families. Secondary homes tend to be more loosely constructed and are scattered near the main home tree and serve as shelter in case a squirrel gets caught out in the elements or is being chased by a predator.

Each nest begins with a study base of twigs. Scientists have discovered that sometimes squirrels weave grapevines into the structure along with leaves, bark, moss, and twigs for added support. After all, the nest sways in the branches and get buffeted by winds, rain, and snow, so it needs to be strong.  Inside, the nest is dry and warm.

When you are driving or walking look up and spot the nests of one of our most industrious small mammals.  Squirrels mate in January and soon the young will be born – in the bleak mid-winter maybe in a squirrel condominium near you!

Turkey and Squirrel Excluder

hoards of turkeys.

Turkeys and squirrels would make short work of seed, leaving none for the small birds.

Nearly everyone who feeds wild birds sees squirrels gobbling up expensive seed. Elaborate and expensive feeders help birds eat while excluding squirrels.  We use a different method.

Plenty of squirrels make Winding Pathways home. So do wild turkeys. We enjoy watching them and don’t mind giving them some seed. Unfortunately, they come in droves and wolf down all the seeds.    Each morning we sprinkle some seeds on the lawn for both turkeys and squirrels but we needed to keep them away from a feeder favored by cardinals, chickadees titmice, and other birds.

Squirrel and Turkey Excluder

This homemade excluder seems to stop squirrels and turkeys while allowing in songbirds.

We built a simple but effective squirrel and turkey excluder out of scrap lumber.  It’s merely a rectangular box two feet wide and four feet long. The frame is made of 2×2 lumber, the top is of treated ½ inch plywood, and the sides are of 2×2 inch mesh heavy wire. There is no bottom.

We placed a feeder on a homemade picnic table and put the turkey and squirrel excluder over it. One end of the excluder is hinged to the table, making it easy to lift the other side to fill the feeder.

So far squirrels and turkeys have not been able to infiltrate the excluder and stay outside enjoying the cracked corn we’ve spread specially for them.

Foiling Squirrels – Sort Of

We love watching frolicking squirrels in our yard and every year we buy bags of corn for them to snack on. We draw the line when they climb up to feeders and gobble expensive seeds meant for chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers.

Bird feeder companies all tout their “squirrel proof” feeders and a homeowner can spend a bundle on different feeders just to slow the flow of seed from feeder to squirrels’ mouths. Some preventions work better than others but a reliable company is Droll Yankee.

But, being partly of Yankee stock, we took the economical route. To thwart the hungry mammals we mounted our feeders on steel pipes and even ringed some with metal stove pipe. Somehow they managed to dig claws into the metal, climb and feast on expensive seed.

Then we discovered spray grease. It’s sold in hardware stores and is meant to spray on drawer slides, hinges, and other balky metal parts. We sprayed it on the metal pipes holding up the feeders. Squirrels gingerly put their feet on the pipe and backed off as soon as they felt the grease. It works.

Spray grease only lasts a few weeks and needs to be reapplied, but it is a simple way to discourage squirrels from climbing to feeders.