by Whit Gibbons

December 7, 2003

Anyone in the eastern United States with a bird feeder knows that the animal most often thought of in connection with it is not a bird but a mammal. The gray squirrel. One of the most frequent questions I get about gray squirrels is, how do I keep them out of my bird feeder?

Some bird feeder enthusiasts wage a constant war against squirrels, seeking ways to make them leave the seeds for the birds. It is a war that cannot be won by humans but only by nature. Occasionally, such as this year in some parts of the Southeast, squirrels are noticeably absent from bird feeders because it is a "mast year," one with an overabundance of acorns and other nuts. With plenty to eat on the ground, squirrels are not as interested in a few seeds at a feeder. But the squirrels have made the decision, not the owner of a backyard bird feeder.

Having squirrels ignore your birdseed is less common than the reverse. If you are unfamiliar with the problem, here's what can happen. You put out birdseed to attract some of the new fall migrants as well as the standard neighborhood birds. But squirrels rather than birds become your primary customers. They eat alongside the birds and although cute, they eat more than their share. You seek a solution.

Birds can fly and gray squirrels cannot, so why not hang your bird feeder from a high tree limb or mount it on a tall pole? If you do so thinking you have solved your problem, you are naive. Gray squirrels climb or jump, up or down, into any feeder that you are able to get birdseed into. The extremes to which these "North American monkeys" will go to reach birdseed will make you wonder if their real agenda is to show how clever they are rather than simply to eat.

Serious backyard bird fanciers have used many approaches to outsmart squirrels, but as far as I know, none has ever enjoyed long-term success when squirrels were abundant in the neighborhood. A given technique may work at first, but the squirrels eventually win through acrobatics that are actually more entertaining than watching birds peck at seeds.

You can find alleged "squirrel-proof" bird feeders for sale here and there. Make sure you get a money-back guarantee. One device I learned of recently is a battery-operated bird feeder that begins spinning when the weight of a squirrel is on the platform. I have a friend who bought one. The first squirrel was slung off into the yard, as were the second and the third. Squirrel-watching began to be fun. Of course, the first fat mourning dove that landed also got a surprise. But finally a squirrel actually held on long enough that the battery began to run down, and then of course the birdseed was easy prey.

Another squirrel-proof feeder I heard a woman speak of was an attractive little gabled house with windows and a covered porch (for the birdseed), something any respectable songbird with a sense of good taste would find appealing. Squirrels were around the area, but the little house was at the top of a very tall pole specially designed to keep their kind out. One week when I spoke to her, no squirrel had made it up the pole. The next week a heavy rain came, and she discovered she had lost the battle. She looked out at the little house to see two squirrels keeping dry under the porch while a third one looked out at the rain from one of the little windows. She has no idea how they got there.

A temporary solution is putting pepper in the birdseed, which repels squirrels until it rains or becomes diluted over time. But the conclusion of many experts (an expert being any observer of animals in the backyard) is that the most rational approach to the bird feeder problem is to learn to enjoy squirrels. If squirrels are spoiling your enjoyment of birds at your bird feeder, call it a squirrel feeder and appreciate their antics.

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