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  • Patrick Durkin

Many Birdfeeders Later, Truce Declared with Squirrels

Soon after man invented birdfeed, he invented birdfeeders.

And he’s been scheming how to keep squirrels off his feeders ever since.

That timeless challenge often prompts angry birdwatchers to contact me. The fact they seek counsel from a person who shoots and eats wild game suggests the obvious: They’re beyond counseling or coexisting.


I won’t mention names, but a regular reader called years ago asking how to load her son’s BB gun. She said the “baffles” above and below her birdfeeders weren’t baffling her backyard squirrels. She hoped to beat them back with copper-coated BBs.


This was long before folks could just type “best BB guns for squirrels” into search windows. People 25 years ago had to press actual buttons on desk- or wall-mounted telephones, say hello, trade pleasantries, and ask strangers how to solve personal problems.


And so I asked my caller several questions about the BB gun. She thought I was speaking in tongues. She didn’t know the gun’s butt from its muzzle, and even held her phone’s earpiece to the gun while turning it upside down so I could hear the BBs rolling back and forth in its tubular magazine.


The ammo taunted her. She yearned to get just one BB into the gun’s chamber. I said I’d help, but explained I felt obligated to say it was futile to try shooting her way out of the problem.


“After you fire every BB in the tube, you’ll still have hungry squirrels hogging your birdfeeders,” I began. “Why? Because if you shoot one squirrel, six come to the funeral. No, I can’t back that up with peer-reviewed research. It’s real-world experience, ma’am.”


She sighed dismissively, so I suggested she also raise her bottom baffle, which was too near the ground. She said she’d try it, but hissed that she was past nonviolent solutions. She would not turn the other cheek. She wanted blood.


“OK,” I said. “Here’s how to load your boy’s gun: Go outside and point its muzzle straight up, and then cock or cycle its lever. That should load a BB into the firing chamber. Then practice at the distance you’ll be shooting until you feel confident.”


After our call ended, I pictured her with the loaded air rifle, pumping enough pressure into its chamber to blast a BB through a battleship. And then I pictured her missing nine out of 10 shots, just like most people who shoot BBs or pellets at small targets.


Her frustrations weren’t unusual. People who feed birds often have little or no love for squirrels. Rather than marvel at a squirrel’s acrobatic leaps onto birdfeeders, people usually grind their teeth, shake their fists, and wish population-level harm.


Don’t believe me? Spend a few minutes searching online. You’ll find videos showing homemade devices flinging, spinning or catapulting “tree rats” into orbit from booby-trapped birdfeeders. I recall a man rigging a high-powered clay-pigeon thrower to the base of his birdfeeder. Just as a squirrel sat up, paws to mouth, atop the feeder, the man triggered the thrower’s arm. The squirrel launched end-over-end from the feeder as if kicked by Mason Crosby.


Some might say I’m heartless to describe such an assault, but don’t judge. It’s been decades since I’ve retaliated against squirrels at our birdfeeders. Besides, those old “Jackass” movies and TV episodes featured young men doing far more violent things to themselves and each other.


And unlike many people, I grudgingly respect squirrels. I’ve also learned the easiest birdfeeders to squirrel-proof are those mounted atop or perpendicular to a pole. But the pole must be at least 10 feet from trees, roofs, powerlines, telephone lines, clotheslines, picnic tables, porch rails, rock walls, parked vehicles, elevated decks, overhanging branches, or anything else squirrels can scale and leap from. The birdfeeder’s bottom must also be 4 to 5 feet off the ground, and you must encase the pole in PVC or sheet metal.


Also buy birdfeeders with perches too small for squirrels, and hang each feeder with thin, smooth wire and a fishing swivel at the end. Squirrels can chew through rope, but struggle to grip or bite wire. Again, study the setup and respect the squirrel’s fearlessness. They think nothing of dropping 15 feet from branches or powerlines if they see a solid platform below.


Some popular baffles are large, dome-shaped devices made of plastic or metal that squirrels can’t grip. Other baffles resemble chimney pipes that steer squirrels into a dark, dead-end interior. For free-hanging feeders, rig the baffle about 2 feet above it. For pole-mounted feeders, attach the baffle below the feeder and at least 4 feet off the ground.


To frustrate squirrels further, choose foods they don’t like. Squirrels risk life and limb for corn, peanuts, sunflower seeds and sunflower meats, but usually scorn safflower or thistle seed. Also avoid suet that includes seeds, grains, nuts or peanut butter.


And as Bill Murray’s character in “Caddy Shack” said while terrorizing golf-course gophers, to defeat a varmint, “you must think like a varmint.”


Maybe that’s why one of my readers wrote this: “I rendered Vaseline with Cayenne pepper, Tobasco sauce, Hungarian paprika, black pepper and other hot products, and spread it on the pole. Unfortunately, the sun warmed the metal and the Vaseline melted off.


“I then bought a can of ball-bearing grease and tried again,” he continued. “After mixing the grease with the hot stuff, I put on rubber gloves and applied it to the pole. Eureka! Oh what a joy! The first squirrel up the pole quickly stopped, slowly backed up, and sat licking its paws. Then, fireworks! You should have seen that squirrel! It was throwing a fit! It danced to imaginary rap music for a long time. That squirrel is still around, but it warned its brethren. No squirrels now climb that pole.”


Other readers suggest spicy birdfeed, noting mammals have receptors that transmit intense heat and sweat messages to their brains when eating chili peppers and other spices. That’s why squirrels avoid spicy foods. Birds, however, do not have those receptors, so they eat spiced feeds and suet with impunity.


Still other readers liked my approach: segregation. Ridding your world of squirrels is impossible. Instead, provide separate, but equal, feeders: four smaller ones for birds and a big one for squirrels.


If you’re still contemplating hostilities, pause and count 10. You’re not the first birdwatcher to have evil thoughts or violent impulses. It’s only a sin if you act on it.


But you risk eternal damnation if you enjoy it.

A gray squirrel hangs from its “gravity boots” to eat food from this birdfeeder.

— Patrick Durkin photos

Three squirrels hunt for seed scraps beneath birdfeeders beyond their reach above.

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