It used to be funny all the squirrel paraphernalia we received as gifts—Welcome to the Nuthouse doormat, Squirrel Crossing road sign, squirrel-themed chocolate and soap. Everyone knew we adored our furry friends, dozens who nested in the nearby woods. We’d gather buckets of acorns to feed them when winters brought frigid temperatures and thigh-high snow. We delighted in their aerial antics, flying from tree to tree, chasing each other in dizzying circles up and down trunks, hanging upside down in the maples nibbling whirlybirds. Then one day they weren’t so fun—or funny—the day they discovered our walnut trees.
When we were married, my husband planted walnuts, and twenty-five years later they started producing, only a few at first, but we were excited for our first harvest. Unfortunately, the squirrels were too. It took them only a couple of hours to strip and bury the unripe nuts, so we were determined to prevent the rascals from stealing our nuts the following year.
Out came old roofing tin, and up went four and five-foot skirts around the base of each tree. It took the squirrels no time to scurry up adjacent trees—cherry, apple, hazel, and mulberry—and, using a branch as a springboard, leap across impossible distances into the walnuts, often hanging by their toenails and scrabbling up twigs to steal our nuts. So out came the polesaw and loppers, giving the nearby fruit trees a serious haircut. And just to be safe, we built a seven-foot scarecrow, dressed in overalls and a flannel shirt, its face a blow-up plastic owl, and topped it with a baseball cap. The squirrels ran circles around it, laughing.
Soon the squirrels figured out how to take a running jump at the shortest tree skirt, push off with their back feet, and grab the edge where they could easily throw themselves onto the lower branches. We watched as they took less than five minutes to gnaw off a nut, bury it, and return for another.
Okay, we thought, if we let the squirrels have the nuts from the smallest tree, we’d protect the two larger trees from the thieves. We removed the skirt, and within a few hours, they stripped every nut from the tree then came sniffing around the others for more. So we did some research, extending the skirts to the recommended six feet on the remaining two trees (unfortunately, we had to lop off some lower branches loaded with nuts). They kept returning, throwing themselves against the metal skirts, trying to dig underneath them, running up nearby trees, calculating the jumping distance, and we knew sooner or later they would figure out a way into the walnuts.
Okay, we thought, how about using the extra nuts from the lopped branches to lure them away from the ripening nuts? We’ll make them work for their keep. So we drilled holes in each nut, strung them on wire, and hung them from the stripped tree. It took the first squirrel nearly an hour of gnawing on the nut until he finally figured out that if he gnawed on the tree branch instead, it would drop to the ground, and he could slip the walnut off the end. He told his friends, and they worked that tree for several days until most branches were scattered on the ground, and we ran out of extra walnuts. Back to the big trees they came, sniffing and circling and digging. One day they discovered if they chewed the branches off a nearby chokecherry, they could build a launching pad sturdy enough to take a flying leap into the walnut. That wasn’t going to happen.
We lopped back the tree, and I began my daily patrol, sitting in the orchard reading and writing and chasing the little buggers whenever I caught them sneaking into the yard. All I did was train them to wait outside the fence until I went indoors. Then they’d strut back to each tree, analyzing the tin tutus for weakness and planning their next strategy. That’s when we decided to trap and relocate them a few miles up the road. They were back within two days.
We tried other tactics—broadcasting owl hoots and bird chitters we downloaded from a university website, blasting rock music, the Stones and Credence, from two different computers at the same time (talk about driving ourselves nuts!). The noise worked for a few days until we discovered the squirrels dancing on top of the speakers. We even installed a motion-sensor fire alarm that spooked them for a couple of days until the neighbor called asking if we were on fire.
By now, we were exhausted, and the squirrels were laughing at each of our sorry attempts. So we decided to harvest early. Rather than waiting for them to crack and fall (and let the squirrels find them before we did), we began knocking them out of the tree and peeling the husks, our hands black with walnut stain. We put them on wire racks to dry in the greenhouse, and someone I won’t mention left the door open. Guess what? Within an hour, the little shits discovered easy pickin’s and stole a rack of nuts. We added a spring on the door so it would automatically shut, plugged up holes they could squeeze through, and replaced some windows with screens so the walnuts wouldn’t cook in the daytime heat. The squirrels spent two days scrambling around on the roof and clinging to the screens, but we kept them out.
We finally had our nuts, but at what cost? Admittedly, it would have been cheaper (and less stressful) in terms of time and effort to buy a few bags at the store, but damn if we were going to let them win. Part of our persistence was trying to outwit their tenacity and ingenuity. Keeping our nuts without going nuts became a game, nearly evenly matched, but we won (well, barely).