Thursday, December 10, 2009

Winter Bird Feeding...Solutions for Squirrels

Its inevitable.  Once you begin feeding birds, you've unintentionally sent an invitation to the local squirrel population.  The party starts small and everyone's getting along, but eventually your furry guests and their "bad manners" wear out their welcome.  When your birdfeeding station becomes a squirrel feeding station, things aren't fun any more.

So what are you going to do?  In a faceoff with your opponent, is it fight or flight?  Well, I'm going to encourage you to not give up.  There are some simple things that you can do to make the relationship between you and the squirrels a little less tense.

Baffle them
The first course of action should be to place a baffle below feeders placed on a pole or post or above feeders that hang from tree branches or roofs.  Baffles are designed to do just that...baffle and confuse the furry marauders about how to reach your birdfeeder.  A baffle comes in many shapes and sizes, but they are all designed to do the same thing.  They can even be made from a piece of sheet metal, an aluminun pie plate, a garbage can lid or other similar items.  Many look like funnels or domes while other are barrel-shaped and also work well for folks who have issues with raccoons.  No matter its shape, it should work properly.  Place baffles on posts and poles 5 feet from the ground with the feeder another 12 inches above the baffle, and hanging feeders should be placed directly under the baffle as shown in the photos.

Create some space
Squirrels are highly athletic, acrobatic, and somewhat fearless in their pursuit to gain access to a fully stocked bird feeder.  Feeder placement in relation to other surfaces and objects is critically important to reduce a squirrel's ability to reach the feeder.  The general rule of distance is 5-7-9.  A birdfeeder placed at least 5 feet above the ground, 7 feet from trees, bushes, or other elevated surfaces, and 9 feet below overhanging roofs or tree branches will greatly reduce the likelihood of an aerial attack.

Squirrel-proof feeders
There are a number of "squirrel-proof" feeders available on the market today.  If the above two tactics have proven uneffective, it may be wise to invest in a new feeder designed to keep the squirrels from helping themselves to all of the seed you intended for the birds.  Many of the newest designs incorporate some sort of mechanism that closes the feeding ports of the bird feeder when critters of a certain weight land on the feeder.  These can be effective as long as the squirrels don't figure out how to reach the seed without place weight on the triggering mechanism. 

Feeding ports stay open when small birds land to feed

When squirrels place their weight on the feeding ring, their weight closes the feeding ports

How do they figure it out?  Well, they've got all day every day to come up with a solution while we're at work or doing other daily tasks.  Their job is to figure out how to acquire food from readily available sources, so often times they eventually figure things out.  So actually, there are  a lot of squirrel-resistant feeders and very few squirrel-proof ones.  One of the best I've personally seen is the WBU Eliminator from Wild Birds Unlimited (picture above).  We've had one at the museum for three years and have yet to see a squirrel successfully remove one seed.  Its even placed intentionally so the squirrels can have access to it.

Change the buffet menu
Squirrels love sunflower seeds, peanuts, corn, and, in some instances, suet.  All of these items are precious treats well worth any squirrel's effort.  Changing to foods that are less desireable to squirrels can have a dramatic effect for many people.  Feeding thistle and safflower, both of which are eaten by numerous bird species, may reduce your squirrel problems since both seed types are less desireable.

Cayenne pepper mixed into bird seed can be effective in some circumstances.  Cayenne additives can be purchased at some retailers, but should be used with caution.  Birds will not be effected by the hot pepper flavor, but squirrels and other mammals like you certainly will.  Caution should be taken to keep the cayenne powder away from your eyes and nose.  Be sure to wash your hands immediately after filling feeders so you don't inadvertently get cayenne in your eyes or nose later.  The same burning sensation is what the squirrels will experience when they eat some of the seed, potentially leading them to avoid the seed altogether.

If you can't beat them, feed them
A favorite tactic for many bird feeding enthusiasts is to offer the squirrels a place to feed all to themselves.  There are a lot of options that can be entertaining for you and your squirrels.  A platform feeder near the ground is one choice.  At the museum, we use the benches of our amphitheater as feeders by spreading seed on top of them.  This makes the squirrels and ground-feeding birds happy.  At my house, I place cobs of corn out for the squirrels.  One is attached to a log, the other from a length of chain just out of reach from the ground so that the squirrels really have to work to get it.  If they're working to solve the corn problem, they're not solving the birdfeeder problem.  And we both get what we want in the end.

Check out these retailers for other squirrel feeders that occupy and entertain:

Happy bird feeding,

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

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