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.
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.
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.
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/.