Jim Harrison made me a bird watcher.
The late, great author of “Legends of the Fall” and numerous other books of poetry and prose wrote and spoke often of his love of the natural world.
Harrison closed his wonderful poetry collection, “The Theory and Practice of Rivers and New Poems,” with a poem called “Counting Birds.”
“Some men count women or the cars they’ve owned,” he wrote. “Their shirts—long sleeved and short sleeved—or shoes, but I have my birds.”
Not long ago, I bought a couple of bird feeders and hung them from a tree branch visible out a window from my favorite living room couch.
I didn’t intend to count the birds, but instead hoped to achieve a kind of Zen-like serenity just watching them.
If I had remembered my Jim Harrison better, I might have realized that bird watching can also make some people a little crazy.
Harrison spent part of the year living in Arizona, near the Mexican border, and one winter a rare Mexican blue mockingbird settled on his property.
The word spread among birders, and they arrived in droves, trespassing on Harrison’s property. According to a 1994 interview included in the book “Conversations with Jim Harrison,” the author did not take the intrusion well.
He hung up a sign: “THE ---ING MOCKINGBIRD IS DEAD.”
He played loud music and fired guns in the air. Finally, the intruders left.
My intruders had four legs and furry tails.
I suppose if I hadn’t been such a pathetically novice bird watcher, I would have realized that hanging seed in trees was likely to bring squirrels.
Frankly, I wouldn’t have minded the squirrels if it had only been a matter of them sharing the feeders with the birds.
But these squirrels could eat their way through a newly filled feeder in less than an hour. They knocked the tops off—the better to fill their faces—and some days knocked the feeders to the ground.
I fought back. When I spotted a squirrel at a feeder, I sprinted to the front door, threw it open, jumped outside, screamed and clapped my hands.
It didn’t do much for my reputation with the neighbors, and it was doomed to fail, anyway, because I couldn’t always be positioned near the door, ready to jump.
Then it dawned on me that it might be possible to prevent the squirrels from scurrying from the tree branch down the long metal hooks that held the feeders.
That morning, Mrs. Moe said, “I believe I saw a man in our front yard spraying no stick PAM at the bird feeders. That man looked like you.”
It didn’t work, either. The spray kept the squirrels from running up the metal hooks, but they could slide down them easily to the feeders. Then when the madman came screaming onto the porch, they just jumped to the ground.
Next—I had begun to dream about squirrels—I punched small holes in large, empty, plastic lemonade bottles, and ran the metal hooks through them. It wasn’t easy. My hands were bleeding by the time I got them positioned.
“You’ve become Carl Spangler,” Mrs. Moe said, referencing the Bill Murray character in “Caddyshack” who went to war with gophers.
“Thank you,” I said.
The lemonade bottles actually worked, though they didn’t do a lot for the aesthetics of the front yard. The squirrels couldn’t get past them to the feeders.
I felt insufferably proud of myself for about a day, and then looked out the window and spotted a squirrel gorging himself at the feeder. How?
I kept watching. They weren’t bothering with the branch. Rather they were launching themselves sideways from the trunk of the tree, and latching onto the feeders.
The war continues. I am not sure this is what Jim Harrison had in mind when he wrote poems about the beauty of birds and the peace that comes with watching them.
The other day, I bought safflower seed for the feeders, after reading that squirrels don’t like safflower seed. It appears to be working. The squirrels have pretty much stayed away.
The thing is, the birds don’t seem to like it, either.
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. See his monthly feature, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.