On national educational tests, North Dakota's children usually come out above average, like the children in Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor's mythical radio town.
On a performance intelligence test, however, squirrels in our North Dakota neighborhood come out below average.
The test is a feeding device specifically designed for squirrels, a metal box-like container that is higher in the back than the front. The top is hinged in the back, so that the top slants downward with a slight overhang. It swings up and back, so you can put in the corn, sunflower seed, peanuts in shells, whatever.
The front is thick transparent plastic that doesn't quite reach the bottom. Squirrels can reach in with their little paws and pull out some feed. If they really want to dig in and reach what they can't through the narrow horizontal slot, they can lift the lid and hop right in.
At least that's the idea described on the cardboard box the feeder came in. Squirrels will reach in the slot and if not satisfied will then lift the lid and really go at it.
Not so in our yard. The first year we saw no squirrel lift the lid. We had an easy vantage point as it is easily visible right outside our living room bay window.
When we saw no squirrel solve the food box, we tended to observe them more and more, wondering if there was one average squirrel in the bunch, or maybe even a Mensa or Einstein one.
The next summer we did see one genius squirrel. He (or she) looked more alert, more inquisitive and more fearless. He even pulled back and surveyed the box, as if thinking. Then he reached out and poked at the overhang of the lid. It moved, gave.
It wasn't long before we saw a tail sticking out under the lid. Then the tail pulled in and he emerged out face first. He had done it. Passed the test. But no buddies were there to see how it was done.
This spring we saw the same one or maybe another one (we'd forgotten exactly what he looked like, and no, we didn't try to catch and tag the little genius). Right back into the box he went. So we have one or two average, or gifted, squirrels, depending how you look at it.
Of course our experiment was not rigorously scientific. We did not watch all the time, or do so with a video camera. Maybe all the squirrels were diving in. Maybe they had a lookout squirrel to alert them when we were at the window, and they entered only when we weren't watching, or when we both left to go somewhere.
Maybe our squirrels were super smart, or at least smarter than we are.
It could also be that squirrels who open the box are less smart but are more reckless, not thinking the box is very much like a trap. Maybe they also are more likely to be hit by a car because they are less cautious.
So it may be that the ones who don't open the lid are above average, and the one or two who did open it are average or below.
Or maybe they feel sorry for us old retirees with nothing else to do but watch squirrels, so they gave us something to ponder. Or maybe they are the squirrels I wrote about in an earlier column, the ones I didn't feed when walking in Oak Park, and they figure I owe them.
(James Lein is a community columnist for The Minot Daily News)