When Leslie was a little girl she used to sit on her parents bed, which was pushed up against their window, and stare outside. The window faced the backyard, which was really just a big rectangle with some clipped grass and patches of pink and red flowers that extended out to the woods. Leslie liked to wander around the entrance to the woods, but she hardly went further than that, unless she had Fairy, her family’s black German Shepherd with her.
But when she was on the bed, she had the perfect view of the birdfeeder. The feeder stood alone, isolated in the grass. It was close to the edge of the woods, but far enough away that it took two big picnic blankets between the feeder and the first tree that marked the beginning of the woods. It was a single, very tall, round wooden fence post perpetually greased with Vaseline, with a wooden platform, and something that looked like a tiny little house in the middle. The walls of the little house were made of wire and were lifted a few inches above the platform on which the house rested. Every few days, Leslie and her father used to lift the roof of the little house up, and fill it up with birdseed.
Inside looking down on it, Leslie could witness all of the birds that came to visit. Cardinals. Mourning doves. Eastern bluebirds and nuthatches. The birds were why she started watching in the first place. But an added — and to her, they were unexpected — were the squirrels.
Her father called them Accidental Acrobats. Accidental. Even to Leslie it was apparent that everything they did to try to retrieve the birdseed wasn’t on purpose, and they ended up looking like last-minute hires for a traveling circus. Her father applied the Vaseline because it was an easy and very effective deterrent. Each time the squirrels tried to climb up (or, if they did manage to get on the platform, to climb down), the squirrels got the sticky, slippery, moisturizing stuff on their little paws and they hated it. It was like watching a dog with shoes trying to walk, or seeing a cat with wet paws. The squirrels would get one paw covered in Vaseline, and that was it. They didn;t want anything more with it. So they would try out what they were quite equipped for and well-practiced with; they tried jumping onto the birdseed platform. But they certainly weren’t ready for the obstacle that this particular feeder presented.
They became almost mythical in their ingenuity to reach the platform. Dangling down on thin branches from the closest trees, looking very much like a desperate fish at the end of a fishing pole. Bracing themselves for a massive jump, from below, butt wriggling like a cat ready to pounce. The falls, the miscalculated distances, the twirling in the air like ice skaters were like fireworks. And the chattering they made during their arguments and discussions on how to best get the seed was loud enough to keep Fairy awake for hours on end.
Which was why Leslie loved to watch them. But what she loved most of all was when they actually did land on the platform, usually, by some type of improbable luck. The squirrel in question usually looked slightly dazed and for a few moments, confused by what had actually happened. Leslie would watch them first smell the air, then reach over to the birdseed, eating it directly from the ground, and then holding the sunflower seeds up to their mouths. One squirrel up there was enough to occupy over half of the platform, and he would happily dominate the whole area, until either he was too full or the birdseed house became empty.
But once that happened, once the goal had been reached and the squirrel was content, they would have to begin a whole other type of acrobatics, only for the next day, to begin craving for the birdseed all over again.