Made On Earth — Backyard in Motion

Craft & Design


Some animals have all the luck. Just ask retired mechanical contractor Bill McHugh, who’s spent more than 40 years creating fun kinetic sculptures that run on air, sun, water, birds, and most typically, squirrels.

In his backyard in Narberth, Pa., they line up by the dozen to try out his peanut-loaded machines. They’re especially fond of the Whirl-a-Squirrel, a whip-like contraption that runs on 200ppd (peanuts per day); and the Twirl-a-Squirrel, a cymbal-clanging, bell-ringing piece that plays Jane Fonda-type exercise tunes and operates on 2,000 peanuts weekly.

McHugh began his hobby by crafting wood pieces, but switched early on to more abstract sculptures using aluminum and stainless steel, materials unencumbered by snow and virtually maintenance free.

Each of McHugh’s pieces requires an average of 200–400 hours to create, but he doesn’t feel comfortable putting a price on his time and energy. Instead, he makes each piece available for long-term loan. Four pieces are currently on loan: one with a local art collector, one with a Philadelphia Zoo official, one with the nearby Lower Merion Conservancy, and the fourth with his daughter in Virginia.

While machines like his solar-powered DNA Is for the Birds — a corkscrew-shaped bird feeder — and the aptly named Hitchcock — a 10-foot-tall, bird-driven, rotating water fountain — are quite impressive, McHugh’s favorites are his four Pterodactyl sculptures, one of which stands in his front yard.

With a 10-foot wingspan, it employs solar energy to flap, chomp, and rotate, and features an intercom that McHugh uses to greet visitors, most of whom he lets wander through his Backyard in Motion free of charge (he’s cautious about small children because of possible injury). Those who McHugh thinks qualify also receive a tour of his workshop.

Despite decades working in relative obscurity, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood called. “Rosie O’Donnell recently requested the Whirl-A-Squirrel,” McHugh says. “I told her it was promised to somebody else, but I’d put her on the list.”

Kinetic Sculpture:

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