Bird lovers across the globe have often-divisive opinions about squirrels. Some people love it when a squirrel comes by – children (and many adults) are naturally drawn to their bushy, quick-flicking tails, comical gloved hands and cute furry faces.
Others, however, may be fed up with the difficulties squirrels and their voracious appetites pose. They can be quite aggressive and whilst predominantly herbivores, have been known to attack nests and eat eggs and even chicks in some parts of the world. Some birds will gladly share a feeder with other bird species, but squirrels will scare or chase away most birds and not leave until they have scoffed the lot.
Squirrels pose an even greater threat to the internet than cyber-attacks.
Love them or hate them, it can’t be denied that squirrels are superbly adapted beasts. Their long hind legs can propel them far into the air, their sense of touch is impeccable, and their teeth can cause damage to an impressive array of materials.
It has even been said that, due to their propensity for gnawing on electrical cables, squirrels pose an even greater threat to the internet and services than cyber-attacks.
Perhaps as an adaptation to prevent them from devouring their own homes, squirrels cannot digest cellulose, which means they must rely on foods rich in protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Hello, bird food.
Feeding birds in your garden or yard is very rewarding – it’s been proven to bring down stress and anxiety levels as well as an easy way to practice mindfulness. The benefits to birds whose habitat may no longer be as large or accessible cannot be understated, and many songbirds – birds whose habitats are often the most at risk – rely on these extra resources especially during the cold winter months.
So, it can be a little bit frustrating when you see all that thoughtfully placed food snaffled up by a four-legged fur monster. Equally hungry, but perhaps not as equally welcomed.
Proof in the eating
There are many different types of bird feeder on the market these days with some claiming to prevent squirrels from chowing down on the good stuff we provide. Each device incorporates one thing or another designed to thwart their toothy plans, with varying efficacy, some doing an excellent job, at least until the squirrel figures it out.
They are incredibly clever animals and can usually find a way around any barrier or impediment, and what’s more, like many birds, they live in large family groups, and share information. This usually means that once you think you’ve found the perfect deterrent, at some point down the line you’ll need to change tactics.
Also, anything that may seem to keep out the adults is often no match for the wriggly little juveniles, who seem to almost gleefully throw the food they’ve accessed to the ground for their heavier, larger relatives. It is universally accepted that in reality, no product on the market is totally squirrel-proof.
However, there are a few safe and ethical tips we’d like to share with you that can help cut down on the frequency of their visits and their overall success.
Unless you are extra unlucky enough to live near flying squirrels, the range of a squirrel’s jump does indeed have its limits. Placing your feeders high and distant enough is key to foiling the momentarily airborne creatures.
It has been found that your average squirrel can’t jump further than 5 feet / 1.m up from the ground, 7 feet / 2.13m across, and more than 9 feet / 2.75m down from something – this is known as the 5-7-9 rule in birding circles.
If you have this sort of space, placing your feeder outside of those parameters usually solves your issue right away. Suspending a feeder using very thin metal or piano wire can be very effective, or hang the feeder using two wires horizontally between two trees, remembering to keep those 7 feet of distance from each end.
Placing “spinners” like PVC piping or plastic bottles with both ends cut off around the wire can help them lose their grip.
Type of food
Let’s face it, though, you either don’t have that much room anyway or your particular squirrels have spent a few years at Cirque du Soleil up in the flyers. Sometimes you just have no choice where you put the feeder. In that case, there are ways to try and make the food itself less attractive.
Like birds, we know that squirrels love sunflowers, but they do not like safflower, nyjer, or white millet, which many types of songbirds’ love, so adding some of this among your regular seeds and corn can put them off.
This is known as the 5-7-9 rule in birding circles.
Using de-husked or “no-waste” seed mixes will help keep discarded food on the ground to a minimum, reducing the likelihood of squirrels and other non-welcome rodents like rats from discovering the food in the first place. Larger ground feeding birds like pigeons tend to ignore feeders with no mess beneath as well. Using de-husked food also means your birds don’t use vital energy and time getting to the nutrients as well.
It may seem a bit counterproductive seeing as your first intention is to keep them away, but sometimes actually inviting the squirrels to tea will keep them satisfied.
They are only coming to your feeders because, like the birds, they are also wild animals looking for their next meal, so why not just offer them one instead. As mentioned, this won’t suit everyone, but placing specific feeders for squirrels out far from the bird feeding stations may just quash their hunger.
They love peanuts and dried corn on the cob, and they also enjoy apples, oranges, apricots and avocados, which smaller seed-eating birds will generally shun.
Keep it (reasonably) clean
Squirrels love an untidy, messy yard. They just love it, skipping and running through piles of leaves and dead wood. Where there is mess, there is the likelihood of some kind of food hiding away.
The trick here is to keep a balance, as many birds also love a woodpile or mound of vegetation, as this promotes insect life which can attract some great non-seed-eating species, so if you want to encourage wildlife diversity in your yard, just keep it away from the seed feeders.
Also, as above with the no-waste seeds, if you do use husked seeds then always incorporate some kind of tray to collect dropped husks, and sweep up daily beneath the feeders. For good bird health, remember to clean your feeders anyway regularly using a 1:10 mild bleach solution, making sure it is completely bone dry before filling it up again.
Whatever your view of the Sciuridae, you should never resort to violence, passive or not. Squirrels comprise a vital part of every ecosystem like all living things and deserve the respect and compassion you reserve for species you favour.
Like the birds, they are also wild animals looking for their next meal.
The biggest no-no of all time is poison. Not only is this an horrific thing to do to a living creature, the risk of that poison then entering the environment and wreaking further death and damage down the line is too ugly to contemplate. You or your children, or your pets, may also run afoul. Poison is only fit for Shakespearean tragedies.
Never use glues or any other type of adhesive on poles or mounts. Many types contain toxins, so see above, and they can cause harm and injury to themselves when they trying to come unstuck.
Open wounds from ripped skin and fur can fester and lead to blood poisoning, other infections, and death. You also have the very real possibility that you will have to remove a stuck squirrel, and then what are you going to do with it?
Like but opposite to glues, slippery substances that cause squirrels to fall or slide off feeder stations can cause both external and internal injury. Petroleum jelly and other greases are hard for the animals to remove from their coats during grooming, can cause skin irritation and loss of insulating fur in bad weather, and when eaten can cause digestive issues and pain.
These substances can of course also transfer to bird feathers, preventing easy flight making them susceptible to predation and starvation.
Some people suggest adding hot spices like cayenne pepper to bird food, as birds do not feel the pain the capsaicin causes, but not that much is known about how it affects squirrels. Some say squirrels simply don’t like the smell and will stay away, whilst others say they will ingest it and it causes pain and mouth irritation which may lead to ulcers, and unknown further internal damage.
Truth be told, when researching if spice harms squirrels, all results only ever answer the question about whether it hurts the birds, with some saying it can hurt birds too if it gets in their eyes. Unless absolutely sure of what it does, we advise against it.
We know squirrels are not on everyone’s must-have list, and we understand why. Your desire to help the birds may inevitably mean helping the squirrels too, so by all means do your own research on how to deter them from your feeders, but also be prepared to accept you may need to just adapt to their presence, and maybe trying to satisfy their needs will also achieve the same for the birds.