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Reasons Why Squirrels Are Smarter Than I Am (Part 3 of N)

April 5, 2011 at 11:09 am

A few years ago, I wrote a pair of posts about one of the strangest experiences of my life.  It left me with the unsettling suspicion that squirrels (1) can read, and (2) are plotting something, probably against me.

But that wasn't the only time I got outwitted by a squirrel at the University of Minnesota.  Oh, no.  Not hardly.  When I returned to the U of MN for graduate school, the squirrels stepped up their game.  They went from subtle gaslighting to outright demonstrations of contempt for my intellect (such as it is).

My first office as a grad student in the U of MN's physics department was a tiny little room dominated by a huge radiator on one wall*.  It was hot and stuffy.   Our only source of meager relief was a window high on one wall, which opened on the roof.  Even in the depths of a Minnesota winter that room was hot enough (I swear I could see the waves of heat coming off the radiator) to keep the window cracked.  In summer, we had that sucker cranked wide open.  It was that or die of heat exhaustion.

I didn't really use the office very much until late summer/early autumn, when it came time to take the qualifying exam and attend a few days of graduate student orientation.  Prior to that, I spent the summer working in a basement lab.  Which meant I'd never had any need to bring a lunch into that sweltering office.  Until the day of the qualifying exam.

The graduate qualifying exam, or the "qual", has a different incarnation in every department, but they mostly boil down to the same thing.  It's basically the milestone by which one qualifies for degree candidacy— it's not an admission to degree candidacy (that comes later), rather an imprimatur that says the department deems one's basic coursework preparation sufficient to begin pursuing thesis research.  (The admission to candidacy, which is often an oral examination, comes after one has chosen a thesis topic and advisor.  Thus, some places refer to the "quals" and the "orals", or the "Q" and "A" exams.  Potayto, potahto.)

Because the qual attempts to assess the entirety of a student's grounding in the field of study, it's a wide-ranging and comprehensive examination.  It covers a wide array of topics, and in considerable depth.  Some departments spread the qual over a couple of days.  Most places give you just a couple of chances to pass the qual.  If you don't pass the qual within the required timeframe, you're not allowed to stick around and pursue an advanced degree.  That's the theory, anyway.  So there is some anxiety associated with the exam.

So anyway.  Yeah.  It was late summer or early autumn, and it was time to take the qual.  At that time, my department confined the qual to one day:  a morning session comprising short problems spread over a wide array of topics, and an afternoon session with a smaller number of much more in-depth questions.  I made a nice dinner the night before so that I'd have plenty of leftover food for a nice nutritious and re-energizing hot lunch the next day.  (Mmmm, hotdish.)

I came in that morning, went up to the new office, plunked a sealed plastic container on the desk, and went off to do battle with the first half of the qual exam.   In retrospect, this was stupid.  Really stupid.  But I had other things on my mind, okay?

By the end of the morning session, my stomach was rumbling and my brain hurt just a little bit.   I needed to fortify before returning for the hard part of the exam.  I tell you, I was really looking forward to some delicious hotdish.  Yum, right?

Heh. The plastic container of my lunch hadn't moved.  But half of the lid had been chewed away, and the desk was covered in little plastic shavings.  Of course, half the food was gone, too.  And what little remained had been smeared all over the desk and had hairs in it.  I think I found an actual whisker.  Overall the carnage of my lunch was rather unappetizing.

I didn't eat lunch that day.  I spent the lunch break cleaning up after the little bastard who had snuck into the office via the roof.  Lesson learned.  (In spite of this, I managed to pass the qual that day.  Not sure how.)

The next day, I brought a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch.  (The hair thing had put me off casseroles for a while.)   I sealed it in a new container, put that container in a desk drawer, and locked the drawer.  And then I went off for a full morning of orientation and TA training. 

But as I locked that drawer, I thought to myself, Try eating that, you little bastard.

Which, of course, it promptly did.

When lunchtime rolled around again, I discovered that not only had a squirrel eaten my lunch again, but it had chosen to demonstrate his contempt for me by going to the bathroom right there in the drawer.  All that remained of my lunch were a few crumbs, a smear of peanut butter, and squirrel scat.  If not for that last bit, I would have been convinced the other grad students were playing with my head.  

After that I gave up and stopped keeping my lunch in the office.

*The best thing about that office was this mysterious doorbell button affixed to the wall.  It didn't appear to do anything.  Yet it was connected to wires, which went through a tiny hole in the wall, into the neighboring office, and then disappeared into the bowels of the building.  It was clearly an ad hoc addition to the office—not something included in the original design for the room.  Somebody had gone to the trouble of putting it there.  But we never learned its purpose or history.  Nobody could tell us why it was there, or who had done it...  only that it had been there a long time.  We wrote a lot of poetry about The Buzzer.  I still wonder about that thing.  I really do.


Steve Halter April 5, 2011 at 2:39 pm
Squirrels are indeed clever little beasts. We tried various incarnations of "squirrel-proof' bird feeds and then gave up after the squirrels outwitted them all. Now we have a common ground based feeder. All the animals are happy and the squirrels are plumper than they should be. We actually have two kinds. Common gray squirrels and smaller red ones. The red ones are especially crazed. Ah, grad offices. My first grad office (Iowas State, Computer Science) was in an old chemical engineering annex behind the Computer Science building. To get to my office, you had to enter and walk across various cat walks suspended by large fractional distillation stacks. At one point there were a large number of signs warning of asbestos removal--they assured me it was safe. I never felt a need to bring lunch to that office. It seemed like maybe a not good thing. :-) It did kind of assure that students only came in to ask really good questions.
Susan April 5, 2011 at 3:05 pm
I'm impressed. A LOCKED drawer? How the devil did they manage that? And as for the mysterious doorbell... It sounds like something out of HOUSE OF LEAVES. Perhaps these demonic squirrels are also descended from the realms of that haunted house.
Ian April 5, 2011 at 3:45 pm
The only truly "squirrel-proof" feeders that I've ever seen use high voltages as a deterrent. I suppose one could rig something with lasers, too. You win for having the worst grad student office I've ever heard of. I never had to walk on a single catwalk in grad school! Actually, I take that back. Susan, downthread, did field research in the arctic. So a tent in the arctic probably is the worst grad student office I've heard of.
Ian April 5, 2011 at 3:50 pm
How the devil did they manage that? Yeah, for the first few moments I was convinced that the other students were playing a joke on me. It seemed impossible. But what I didn't know is that my wooden desk didn't have a backplane (whatever that thingy is called). So the backs of the desk drawers basically pushed against the wall, rather than another piece of wood. It was the top drawer. As near as I could figure it, the squirrel wriggled through a tiny gap into the drawer, ate everything, relieved itself, and wriggled back out again. And as for the mysterious doorbell... It sounds like something out of HOUSE OF LEAVES. I must read this! All my questions will be answered! Will they be answered?
Steve Halter April 5, 2011 at 9:02 pm
A tent in the arctic wouldn't be for me. The office was kind of cool from a Frankenstein point of view.
Steve Halter April 5, 2011 at 9:07 pm
HOUSE OF LEAVES does look pretty interesting. At our previous house, squirrels gnawed their way into the outside porch roof. During the winter, in their boredom (or plotting?), they gnawed through a couple of the two by fours in the roof. Partial roof replacement ensued.
Ian April 5, 2011 at 9:46 pm
During the winter, in their boredom (or plotting?), they gnawed through a couple of the two by fours in the roof. Partial roof replacement ensued. I hate to say it, man, but that almost sounds like a murder attempt. Sort of like the way the squirrel tried to poison me.
Steve Halter April 6, 2011 at 5:52 pm
For another squirrel data point I submit: We have a pool and in the spring, after the ice thaws and the cover is removed we will usually find a squirrel or a chipmunk that has met an unfortunate fate. One might attribute this to unwariness after they walked on it during the winter. However, the curious aspect of the affair is that there is never a red squirrel that meets an unfortunate demise. Thus, we are left to ask--are the red squirrels smarter? Or, are they the hidden squirrel masters, sending the lesser squirrels to 'sleep with the fishes?'
Tengland April 6, 2011 at 8:00 pm
The wires of which drop into the bowels of the building, then continue downward through the tortured Earth and into the hellish realm. Did you push it? If yes, Cthulu is aware of you. If no, then the nothingness of Untaken Paths is your eternity.
Ian April 6, 2011 at 9:52 pm
Thus, we are left to ask--are the red squirrels smarter? Or, are they the hidden squirrel masters, sending the lesser squirrels to 'sleep with the fishes?' I think you've answered your own question. I mean, I know that's the theory *I* would adhere to. It does fit the facts. You know, sometimes maybe a grey squirrel transgresses the unwritten law. And maybe sometimes that sonofabitch gotta become an example, you know?
Ian April 6, 2011 at 9:54 pm
Dude, I pushed that thing hundreds of times. At one point we even hooked into the circuit to see if we could energize something on the other end. Little did we know the wires led all the way to R'lyeh... How's the new job, man?
Sara G. April 10, 2011 at 7:59 pm
If anyone is looking for a non-electrocuting squirrel-proof bird feeder, or if you just like seeing squirrels get a little comeuppance, google videos of the Yankee Flipper at work. I heard about it from my sister, who is decidedly anti-squirrel. Serious engineering has gone into this.
Ian April 10, 2011 at 8:41 pm
That is mesmerizing. Almost hypnotic. It's possible I might be experiencing the tiniest bit of schadenfreude as I watch squirrels on the spin cycle. I still have confidence in my engineering solution to the 100% squirrel-proof birdfeeder: it's magnetically levitated 100 feet off the ground, in the middle of a flat featureless plain, 100 yards from the nearest anything.
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