WHAT'S UP WITH THOSE BACKYARD SQUIRRELS?

by Whit Gibbons

July 3, 2016

"What should I write a column about this week," I asked my son as we sat on the back porch. He looked up from the newspaper he was reading and glanced at the bird feeder I had filled a few minutes earlier. We watched a young squirrel slide down the metal pole that was wet from a recent rain shower.

"Squirrels," he said and went back to his newspaper. I watched the squirrel make a futile last attempt to climb the slippery pole, look over toward me in what I perceived to be annoyance, and then poke around the yard looking for seeds on the ground. I decided that reprinting the answer to the most common question about squirrels I've received over the years would be worthwhile.

Q: How do I keep squirrels from eating the birdseed in my backyard feeder? I can't enjoy the birds because of these little raiders.

A: Anyone in the eastern United States with a bird feeder knows the gray squirrel. You put out birdseed to attract the standard neighborhood birds. But squirrels rather than birds become your primary customers. Some bird-feeding enthusiasts wage constant combat against these rodents, seeking ways to make them leave the seeds for the birds.

Expecting squirrels to ignore sunflower seeds is a seldom-fulfilled hope. Serious backyard bird fanciers use many approaches to outsmart squirrels. As far as I know, none have enjoyed unequivocal long-term success when squirrels are abundant in a neighborhood. Any given technique may work at first, but the squirrels eventually win through acrobatics that are more entertaining to watch than birds pecking at seeds. The extremes to which these "North American monkeys" will go to reach birdseed may make you wonder if their real agenda is to show how clever they are rather than simply to eat.

You can find alleged squirrel-proof bird feeders for sale here and there. Make sure you get a money-back guarantee. One device is a battery-operated 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 plump 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 a friend told me about was an attractive little gabled house with windows and a covered porch for birdseed, something any respectable songbird with a sense of style would find appealing. Squirrels lived 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 peered out at the rain from one of the little windows. She has no idea how they got there.

Putting a mixture of chili pepper and soybean oil in the birdseed is a temporary solution. The concoction repels squirrels - until the rains come or it's diluted over time. Ask your local seed and feed dealer about the latest products designed to outwit the squirrels, including a commercial pepper.

But the conclusion of many experts (an expert in this case being any observer of animals in the backyard) is that the only effective long-term approach to the bird feeder problem is to learn to accept the squirrels. If they are spoiling your enjoyment of birds at your bird feeder, call it a squirrel feeder and appreciate their antics. Might as well, because eventually they will find a way to get up even a rain-drenched pole.

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