Gang of Manor Park thieves unmasked but uncaught

When his squirrel-proof birdfeeder began disappearing, John Graham knew he couldn't be dealing with ordinary criminals.

By John Graham

A reconstruction of the theft. Illustration by John Graham
A reconstruction of the theft. Illustration: John Graham

Early this summer we and our neighbour across the street were alarmed to discover that our bird feeders had disappeared. They seemed to have been scooped up as part of a rash of small-scale neighbourhood thefts. But bird feeders? Was there a local black market in bird feeders? Ottawa has its share of eccentric abnormalities, but this didn’t fit.

Our feeder was one of the big ones. At Ritchie’s Feed & Seed, they are called “Squirrel Busters” for their defensive arrangements and cost about $170 with tax. The theft was not financially calamitous, but nor was it well received by the sparrows, downy and hairy woodpeckers, cardinals, robins, juncos, chickadees, nuthatches, purple finches, goldfinches, and occasional blue jays who dined regularly in our back garden and serenaded us at sunset.

Distressed by the accusatory glare of hungry birds, a new, smaller feeder was purchased at Ritchie’s. But we remained perplexed until our neighbour across the street informed us that their feeder had been discovered stuffed under a bush, and, of course, without birdseed.

“Ahaa!”, we thought. The culprit may not be human, but if not human, then very clever. Two weeks later there was another discovery. Another neighbour, whose garden backs onto ours, found our feeder, again almost empty, hidden under shrubs in their garden. The plot was thickening and was pointing at the raccoon family–except for one large question mark. Our feeder had been hanging from a hook suspended over six feet from the ground on a steel pole and further protected by the “squirrel busting” steel cone half way up.

“Hmm!” We and the birds were relieved, but we were more perplexed. For a raccoon to remove the feeder, which, with seed, weighs about six pounds, would require amazing acrobatic and digital skills. Where should we take our investigation? As in many crises we consulted mother Google. She narrowed our search and, in the end, offered a plausible but still incomplete explanation. A Google video of raccoons detaching a bird feeder also helped, but ours was larger and further out of reach than the one in the video.

We don’t have a video of the “snatch” in our garden so the sketch of “the reconstruction of the crime” will have to do. We are reasonably sure this is what transpired. It was a team effort. One raccoon clambered onto the shoulders of his/her companion. With one foot on the steel “squirrel buster” cone for stability, this raccoon was able to reach to the top of the steel pole, grasp, tilt and lift the feeder with his/her fingers, and drop it on the grass. Presto! Mission accomplished!

According to Google, we shouldn’t have been surprised. After humans and monkeys, raccoons are the most intelligent species, more than dogs and twice as bright as cats. (As former parrot-owners, we would put parrots somewhere in the top four.) The raccoons have unusual agility. The black patches under their eyes enhance their sight during nocturnal hunts for food. David Attenborough remarked on the “manual dexterity” of raccoons. Like us they have five ‘fingers’ on all four limbs. And they communicate, producing a range of two hundred different kinds of sounds to express emotion or to convey warnings. A science lab tested a group of 12 raccoons. Food was secured in 13 containers- each with a different locking device. The raccoons succeeded with 11! In another test a raccoon was taught to pee into a toilet, but, alas, could not master the skill of flushing.

Successful heist versus the LRT shambles. A raccoon for mayor?