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August 23, 2012

Squirrels and Bird Feeders

Quest for a squirrel-proof bird feeder

Adapted from the book Wild Neighbors

  • Backyard acrobats, squirrels seem to always get what they want. Love them or not, it is hard not to admire these persistent critters. iStockphoto.com

  • Squirrels get accused of defying physics to dine at birdfeeders, but you can often distract them with other options. iStockphoto/Stephen Meese Photography

  • Caged birdfeeders are pretty effective in keeping squirrels out of the bird seed. Janet Snyder/The HSUS

  • The clear saucer-type bafflers are great at deflecting squirrels from hanging feeders. Janet Snyder

  • Supplying squirrels with a feeding option of their own helps keep them away from your bird feeders. iStockphoto/Judy Ledbetter

  • In the fall, pumpkins provide an alternative food source, and entertainment for squirrels (and you). iStockphoto/Sue Smith

Countless backyards are battlegrounds between determined homeowners and squirrels fighting over bird food. No mammal is as competent at achieving his goal—ready to defy every design, every device, and every technology intended to keep him from consuming sunflower seeds, peanuts, and corn.

Some people have nothing against squirrels and will let them take what they want from feeders. Where possible, a little for squirrels and more for the birds seems to be a good compromise. The real problems begin when that arrangement doesn’t satisfy the squirrels, and they take their share and then some.

So what should we do? The first step is to keep the squirrels out of feeders by either placing the feeder where squirrels can’t gain access to it, or using a feeder that is designed to keep squirrels out no matter where it is in the yard.

Blocking them with baffles

One way to keep squirrels out of your feeder is to top it with a large plastic dome called a baffle. The idea is simple: The squirrel tries to climb onto the feeder and encounters the baffle, which blocks her access. When she tries to push her way past the bafflers, they rotate, often dumping the would-be diner onto the ground along with some seed. (As unbelievable as it may seem, some squirrels figure out that they can just launch themselves at the dome, bounce off, and eat the seeds that are spilled on the ground.)

You can create a homemade system by suspending the feeder from a horizontal wire equipped with baffles that block squirrels from scampering from the wire to the feeder. Here’s how:

1. Attach each end of the wire to trees, posts, or any convenient structure.
2. Find clean, empty soda bottles (one liter or more).
3. Puncture a hole in the bottom of each bottle.
4. Slide three or four of them on to the wire on each side of the feeder.

That should prevent all but the most athletic squirrel from dining at your feeder.

Squirrels will also have difficulty raiding a feeder hung from a tree branch on a wire more than ten feet long. Place the feeder at least eight feet away from the tree trunk, limbs, or structures from which the squirrels might leap. If a squirrel does slide down the support wire, a plastic or metal umbrella-shaped (commercial or homemade) baffle mounted over the feeder will deflect him.

Building a better bird feeder

New exclusion designs are appearing all the time. Some more complex (and more expensive) designs use counterbalanced baffles that close the feeder’s openings when any animal as heavy as a squirrel comes to feed. The expense may be worth it—we’ve had feeders like this in use for ten years and they are still going strong.

Other models feature an external cage whose openings are so small that squirrels and larger birds can’t get at the food, but smaller birds can. The birds always manage to drop some seeds, so as an added bonus the squirrels get something, too.

Modifying the menu

A second basic approach is to fill your feeder with foods that squirrels won’t want: safflower seed (which attracts species such as cardinals, chickadees, and titmice), nyjer thistle (which nourishes goldfinches and others of their kind), or a birdseed mixture that includes a large amount of white proso millet seed (which satisfies the hunger of mourning doves and house finches).

Avoid harm

Some "solutions" to keeping pesky squirrels out of bird food, such as trapping and killing, are simply unacceptable. There are some other squirrel-repelling products and methods that we don’t recommend. These include:

  • Sticky Stuff: These products cause the most concern. They are made of a thick, sticky, gel-like material, used to cover surfaces on which squirrels might walk or climb. The material will repel squirrels but if it gets on a bird, it can kill them.
  • Hot Stuff: The active ingredient in hot peppers, capsaicin, can be found as an additive in some birdseed. Birds don’t react to capsaicin the way mammals do so it does them no harm. But when squirrels eat the treated seed, it irritates their mouths making them less likely to eat more. But why use this method when there are other ways that cause less pain and harm?
  • Shocking Stuff: Some feeders deliver an electrical current that will surprise and—literally—shock any problem squirrel. These cause unnecessary pain.

There are many more strategies, devices, plans, and schemes you can try. Your local bird store will have many other devices, as well as advice about what's being tried locally.

An alternative approach

Consider a specialty feeder for squirrels themselves—more people are opting for the "If you can't lick 'em, join 'em" strategy. When you kick back and enjoy squirrels along with their feathered friends, they double the pleasures of watching your wild neighbors.

More squirrel problems and solutions »

Resources

» Purchase a copy of Wild Neighbors; the go-to guide for useful, humane solutions to conflicts with wildlife. 
» If you live within the D.C. Metro Area, take advantage of our wildlife conflict resolution service.
» Kim Long, Squirrels: A Wildlife Handbook (Johnson Books, 1995)
» Michael Steele and John Koprowski, North American Tree Squirrels (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2003)

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