Birdseed bandits: Outsmarting squirrels

Fos Squirrel

Fox Squirrels are not native to Wyoming’s high plains. Someone introduced them to Cheyenne, where they have learned to raid bird feeders. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Jan. 19, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birdseed bandits. How hard can it be to outsmart squirrels?”

2015 Update: Last month, after ten years, when the springs wore out, we finally replaced our first Perky Pet square tube sunflower seed feeder. It withstood squirrels clinging to it every now and then, and didn’t let them get any seed.

By Barb Gorges

Fox squirrels are a by-product of bird feeding in Cheyenne. While they are cute and fuzzy and entertaining, the ones attracted to my yard have also been destructive, crashing bird feeders and stripping tree bark, not to mention stealing food meant for birds.

Originally, Cheyenne had hardly any trees and no tree-type squirrels. Birds had no competition at the feeder until, the story goes, somebody imported a few from Nebraska.

Much thought by people who feed birds has gone into outwitting squirrels. The problem is they seem to adapt to all of our strategies to exclude them. Fighting them off is a bit like fighting an infection with antibiotics. Do you use the lowest level of technology that will do the job for now, or do you use a well-fortified feeder to begin with? It all depends on your means and patience.

Feeding birds in Cheyenne is as simple as throwing black oil sunflower seed on the ground. It’s everybody’s favorite and you’ll get a wide assortment of seed-eaters including sparrows, juncos, finches, chickadees and nuthatches—and eventually, squirrels.

The first level of advice often given is to offer squirrels their own feeding station stocked with favorite foods, such as dried corn. Many companies offering bird feeders also offer a platform on which to spike a whole ear.

Baffling the wee beasties

However, with five furry and frisky feeders now gnawing on my trees, I’d rather not attract them to my yard at all. Putting sunflower seed in a tube, hopper or platform feeder protects it only somewhat from squirrels.

These kinds of feeders can be set on a pole, especially if you live where the wind tends to dump seed out of hanging feeders, but sooner or later the squirrels learn to shimmy up the pole.

Commercially made baffles are available that mount on the pole below the feeder. Some look like large, upside down, plastic salad bowls, so perhaps you can drill a hole in the bottom of that extra one you got for a wedding present.

Ruth Keto said greasing her feeder pole with canola oil has worked well so far in her Sun Valley neighborhood. It’s not certain yet how often the oil needs to be reapplied to keep it slippery, or if it’s actually a matter of fastidiousness which the squirrels will eventually overcome and finally get their paws dirty.

In our yard, we tried slipping a 6-inch diameter plastic pipe over our feeder pole before setting it in the ground. The same length as the pole was above ground, it worked because the pipe is too big around for the squirrels to get a grip—until the plastic weathers and the surface becomes rougher.

Lela Allyn has a solution that recycles two-liter pop bottles. She cuts a hole in the bottom of a bottle the diameter of the pole, and slits it all the way up the side. She slips the bottle around the pole and tapes up the slit. It takes several pop bottles, starting at ground level, to bypass the distance squirrels in her Cheyenne backyard have learned to jump.

Pop bottles applied to Lela’s clothesline in the same way have protected feeders hanging from it. Any squirrel stepping on a pop bottle will cause it to spin and the little seed burglar will lose its footing.

Feeders hanging from the arm of a pole or tree branch are usually invaded from above. Once again, a dome-shaped baffle, this time hung above your feeder, could solve your problem, whether commercially produced or of your own invention. These also serve a secondary purpose in partially protecting the feeder from snow and wind.

Bird feeder

This square, tube-type feeder has a spring mechanism. When a squirrel grabs hold, the metal leaves are pulled down, in front of the seed ports. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Caging the consumables

Putting your feeder in a cage is another way to keep out squirrels. It also has the benefit of keeping out large birds, such as grackles and blackbirds, which may monopolize feeders.

Our family bought a Duncraft sunflower seed tube feeder in 1993 which is still in good shape. It came with a plastic-coated wire mesh fence around it, capped by a plastic roof and a plastic tray at the bottom. The wire mesh had big enough openings for a small bird to reach the seed ports, but not a squirrel.

After years on the pole protected by the plastic pipe, we moved it to a tree branch in the front yard. In only a couple weeks, we caught a squirrel wedging itself under the roof and between the tube and the cage.

An inspection of new Duncraft products at a local store showed we could buy the new version with a presumably squirrel-proof locking mechanism on the cap of the tube, plus metal roof and tray securely attached to the mesh.

Instead, we bought a new cage. This is complete with a wire top and bottom and it will fit most tube feeders. The top opens with a presumably squirrel-proof latch so that you can fill the feeder. The handle of the feeder fits through a slot when the cage is closed. So far, so good. Of course, it’s only been a few months.

Small wire cages are sold for holding blocks of suet. Woodpeckers and chickadees, which normally like to eat insects, are attracted, but so are squirrels. We had one of these suet feeders but the birds never had a chance at it. The squirrels hung from it and nibbled. Finally, they unlatched it so the whole block fell out. I see in a catalog there’s now a big cage just for hanging a suet feeder inside.

Platform feeders attract birds that may not want to tackle a tube feeder. Dark-eyed juncos are ground feeders, though they will use a platform four feet in the air. Cage adaptations are available commercially, but I’m thinking I could fix something over the top of our shelf feeder. It has to be removable so the feeder, like all feeders, can be cleaned every few weeks to avoid spreading bird diseases.

Duncraft has come out with a platform feeder guaranteed squirrel proof, based on the theory that squirrels need both paws to grasp a seed. They claim they have a metal grid with spacing too close together for two paws in one opening, but large enough for bird beaks. The platform is entirely metal so the squirrels won’t chew their way in to the booty. How long will it take them to learn to use their paws to scoop seed instead?

For about as long as we’ve had that sunflower tube feeder, we’ve had the same brand of tube for niger (also spelled nyger) thistle seed. This seed is very fine and needs ports, or tube openings, that are very small. Luckily, they automatically exclude squirrels and large birds in favor of the thistle-eating species such as the fine-billed goldfinches and pine siskins. That’s good, because thistle seed is quite a bit more expensive than sunflower seed and I’d hate to waste it on squirrels.

On the other hand, if you enjoy feeding the increasing numbers of Eurasian collared-doves, and the mourning doves when they come back in the spring, you are out of luck. Cage methods probably won’t work well because the doves are about the same size as the squirrels, and the squirrels like the doves’ favorite food, white millet.

Springing surprises

One obvious solution to the squirrel problem is to decimate the population. However, without the proper licensing, this may be against the law in the ordinary backyard. Instead, members of the bird feeding community have become quite inventive and several have patented their anti-squirrel technology.

First, there’s the Twirl-a-Squirrel Electronic Baffle I saw in a catalog. The weight of the squirrel activates a motor that starts twirling your tube feeder until the squirrel falls off. I think it’s only a question of time before one of them figures out how long it has to hold on before the batteries die.

Another battery operated feeder, by Duncraft, actually zaps squirrels with electric current they say birds can’t feel.

Then there’s the Yankee Flipper by Droll Yankees. This operates on batteries also, but it flips the squirrel off. For $10 you can buy the action-packed video that shows how effective this feeder is. Recently, the company added the Yankee Dipper, Yankee Tipper and Yankee Whipper, which all use the principle of perches that collapse when a large enough animal lands on them.

Then there is spring technology. Hopper feeders are roofed containers filled with seed that spills out a crack at the bottom where it is caught on a tray, or perhaps the seed is available through a series of ports along the bottom while birds perch on a bar. Barbara Costopoulos of Guernsey loves her spring-loaded hopper feeder. She has it adjusted so that the weight of a squirrel will close the ports.

Another of her feeders is by the Perky-Pet company. It looks like a square tube feeder wrapped in metal fencing and decorative metal leaves. When a squirrel lands on a perch, the metal fencing, attached by springs, is pulled down and a leaf blocks each seed port, like the portcullis on the entrance to a castle.

Quality counts

If no one has been feeding birds or squirrels in your neighborhood for a long time, you may be able to get away with a lightweight feeder—for awhile.

The first time we hung a feeder in our front tree, it was a Mother’s Day gift from the boys, bought with their meager allowance. First the squirrels took the cap off the tube and reached in for the seed. Next, when the seed level got too low, they began breaking off chunks of the thin and brittle plastic tube so they could reach farther in. Finally, the feeder was knocked to the ground. Destruction was complete in about two weeks.

Paying for quality is cheaper in the long run. But don’t forget to protect your investment. Use eye-bolts and snapping clips so your hanging feeders can’t be swung loose by squirrels or wind. Save your money for bird seed.

Bird feeding information:

Check out Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project Feederwatch Web site, http://feederwatch.org/.

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Squirrels: Biological and ethical problem

Gray squirrel

Gray squirrel at Bartram’s Garden, Philadelphia. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Feb. 2, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Fox squirrels pose biological and ethical problems.”

2014 Update: No shortage of squirrels in Cheyenne yet.

By Barb Gorges

Just minutes after e-mailing the Jan. 19, 2005, Birdseed Bandits story to the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle Outdoors editor, I watched as a squirrel extracted sunflower seed from my tube feeder while it was hanging inside its supposedly squirrel-proof cage.

The squirrel hung from the outside of the top of the cage by its hind feet, stretched full length and reached through with its front paws for one of the tube’s lowest seed ports. The squirrel’s weight caused the cage to tilt sideways, but the free-hanging tube within remained vertical and the end of it touched the cage. That the squirrel found a weak spot in my defenses does not surprise me.

I’m also not surprised a story about keeping squirrels out of birdfeeders generated several kinds of responses. One reader, in Billings, Mont., reminded me of the red pepper cure. Squirrels hate it and birds can’t taste it. However, she said keeping enough on the bird seed is a lot of work.

A Casper reader said he has a 95-percent effective system. He hangs his feeders from a horizontal steel cable with baffles between, above and below feeders.

A reader from Greeley, Colo., wanted to know why I didn’t mention live-trapping. He said he’s released problem squirrels as far away as Casper and Cheyenne. Gee, thanks a lot! Obviously, this solution only changes the location of the problem, not to mention moving live wildlife across state lines is illegal.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department warden Mark Nelson, stationed in Cheyenne, encourages anyone wanting to borrow a trap and legally move a squirrel to call him at 638-8354.

Outside city limits, where hunting fox squirrels is legal, one needs a state small game license. Gun and bow season is Sept. 1 through Dec. 31, though for falconers it is year long.

Then a local caller who feeds 12 squirrels a day, without apparent harm to trees, asked why I was so intent on decimating them. Personally, I like the little imps. I just hate seeing the many places on our trees where they’ve stripped the bark. Lisa Olson, city forester, said squirrels feed on the cambium layer, the layer responsible for tree growth.

According to the American Society of Mammologists, fox squirrels also eat other tree parts: seeds, fruits, buds and some flowers. They are particularly fond of acorns, walnuts, pecans, etc., but since Cheyenne doesn’t offer a lot of nut trees, I’m thinking they’ve latched on to bark instead. On the plus side, they prune my trees nicely while gnawing off twigs for nest building, meaning fewer visits required by an arborist.

The Billings reader reminded me squirrels will also eat baby birds and bird eggs, a fact documented by the mammologists society’s paper, and an additional reason to consider the effects on the balance of nature of a species that was brought by people to our city.

The problem with feeding squirrels is that if we supplement their diet, they are likely to produce more than the average three pups per litter and even nest twice a year. Good nutrition equals increased fecundity which can mean increased population and increased tree and bird damage.

There are some people who might point out that Cheyenne’s historic vegetation, except along the creeks, was treeless. But for those of us who appreciate trees and are too kind-hearted not to feed the squirrels and won’t or can’t hunt them, we need to look at their natural predators. Dogs and cats kill them too, but kindhearted people don’t allow that to happen.

In the simplified version of the perfect predator-prey relationship, as the prey species population increases, predators move in and/or finding more to eat, are able to produce more young.

Eventually, the effects of their higher numbers outstrips the prey population’s ability to reproduce. Normally the predators do not get every last squirrel. Instead, they starve, leave or produce fewer young than average or don’t reproduce at all. With less hunting pressure, once again prey numbers begin to climb and the cycle begins again. Wildlife managers have learned that a healthy population fluctuates.

Hunting, collisions with cars, power line electrocutions and disease also limit squirrel populations, but at least with natural predators, we have more watchable wildlife. Those species mentioned by the ASM and which I’ve seen within Cheyenne’s city limits are red-tailed, ferruginous and rough-legged hawks, great-horned owls and red foxes.

There’s a chance that my squirrel problems are localized. If I keep spilled seed cleaned up and keep squirrels out of the feeders, they might move on. If, however, it is a city-wide problem, we need to look at how to attract more of the natural predators. Besides food, they want a place to nest or den safely. How about a crossing guard or tunnel for those foxes that insist on navigating Dell Range Boulevard?

It is unlikely Cheyenne will ever be without fox squirrels. As another of many species affected by human action, intentional and unintentional, will nature find a balance for squirrels which people can live with? Some say bird feeding also presents ethical wildlife problems, but that’s a discussion for another day.