Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Bird paradise lasted for about a day before squirrels descended on the squirrel-proof feeder. It took no time for them to figure out how to loot it.

When I saw the first squirrel, I remembered why I had abandoned keeping a bird feeder years ago. Some like squirrels and are amused by their acrobatics. I had to look up just what ecological function they serve.

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Squirrel-proof? Not

My blood pressure rose as I saw how quickly they worked around the lever on the tube feeder designed to snap shut with any weight greater than a bird’s. They kept all their body weight on the trunk of the tree and effortlessly maneuvered their mouths to the opening, inhaling seed at an astonishing rate. I waved the white flag, stopped looking out the window, and seethed.

To plot my next move, I returned to the Cornell bird site. www.birds.cornell.edu. There are many strategies to outfox squirrels. The first and most obvious mistake we made was positioning the feeder on a tree. To make it more difficult to access, a feeder should be positioned at least 10 feet from a jumping off point. Looking around our yard, I saw many squirrel-friendly platforms: fences, stonewalls, shrubs and, of course, best of all, trees.

Additionally, the Cornell site recommends baffles on all feeders. Tilting baffles over a feeder can repel jumping squirrels, which tend to slide off when landing. If a feeder is mounted on a pole, the baffle goes below the feeder because apparently squirrels can climb the “slipperiest” of poles. In this case, the baffle should not be tilted.   A suitable baffle can be made from a garbage can lid or you can buy a ready-made baffle that fastens to the pole with a clamp. According to the Cornell site, its only truly effective squirrel-proof feeder is a tube feeder mounted on a pole more than 10 feet from cover with a 16-inch baffle fastened about a foot below the feeder bottom. Its baffle also serves as a feeding tray and catches spilled seed from above, perfect for birds such as cardinals that prefer a platform feeder.

There are other options such as “squirrel spooker” poles, feeders made of indestructible materials and/or with seed ports reinforced with metal, or the “if you can’t beat them, join them” method: bribing squirrels with foods they prefer, such as peanuts or cracked corn, and they presumably leave the birdseed alone.

Armed with this information, I returned to the Fat Robin Wild Bird & Nature Shop. www.fatrobin.com. I wanted to keep it simple and was inclined to replicate the successful set-up described on the Cornell site. The ground was frozen from subzero weather, so I was reluctant to buy a shepherd’s hook, but the recommended steel double hook (which could accommodate 2 tube feeders and a platform or caged suet feeder) has a heavy duty outrigger and metal spade attached, which not only ensure the pole stays straight, but make it easy to install—mostly using body weight and a few swings of a sledge hammer. Though I was tempted to try the garbage can baffle, I bought a galvanized steel squirrel and raccoon baffle manufactured by Erva in Chicago. The top of the baffle must be installed 4 feet from the ground. At my request, staff at the Red Robin helpfully positioned it on the pole to be sure I’d do it right. It was reassuring to learn they’ve been selling this set-up for over 20 years and, as a small business, would not sell a product found to be ineffective.

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The double shepherd hook in action. Steel baffle is below the feeders and not shown. Birds are (left to right) European Starling,  Tufted Titmouse and House Finches.

Almost two weeks ago, I executed on the battle plan. It didn’t take long for the squirrels to arrive and try to scale the pole. They succeeded in climbing a few feet up the pole, but the baffle completely repelled them. Since then, they scavenge on the ground, but they leave the pole alone. So, now there is peace, but never a dull moment. The red-tailed hawk was back Sunday on its perch in the highest ash, waiting to pounce. Our bird feeders are open for business, but that afternoon, our yard was a ghost town.

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Red-tailed hawk–Hello!

Some notes and observations:

  1. We sited our bird feeders at least 10 feet away from any possible squirrel platform, but trees and shrubs are just beyond the perimeter for coverage from hawks and other predators (we hope).
  2. Sunflower seeds, which are preferred by many birds, have natural plant compounds that can be toxic to other plants. In fact, the substance has been explored as a possible source for weed prevention. As a result, you should be careful where you locate a feeder—vegetation underneath may wither. Some get around this problem by using shelled sunflower seeds. However, I was told that birds have evolved to crack and eat seeds, so it may not be optimal. Another option is to site the feeder in a bare area or be vigilant about raking up shells. Shells should not be added to a compost pile because of potential toxicity.
  3. I am enchanted by the black-capped chickadee. It is the smallest bird to visit the feeder, the first to discover it, the earliest to arrive in the morning, and utterly fearless. There is much to admire!DSC_0945
  4. Mourning doves are plentiful. I never saw one on our property before, but have been enchanted by their song for years.
  5. Cardinals are magnificent. I never thought about how vulnerable they are because of their vibrant color—particularly males. I’ve noticed they’re quite observant and quick to flee when they detect movement, so perhaps this helps.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  6. There are woodpeckers galore—downy and red-bellied mostly. They distinctly prefer suet.
  7. Birds are great weather predictors. The temperature warmed last week and there was little activity at the bird feeder. But the day before a heavy rain, they were back. Today, it’s cold and windy and I’ve never seen more.
  8. The early bird does get the best food and birds seem to eat at predictable intervals throughout the day—almost like we do.
  9. In the northeast, some keep their feeders up only from November to April so as not to invite bears and because there are other sources of food readily available during the other months. I plan to follow that practice.
  10. Though I’ve been able to identify a number of birds—purple and house finch, red-winged blackbird, examples of species that are new to me—many move too quickly to identify easily. Distinctive coloring helps. I’ve had more trouble narrowing down birds that are brown and gray. The search continues.

 

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. thegsandwich says:

    I just bought some suet at the store today to make more suet cakes. The birds are so appreciative, and it’s fun to come up with different recipes to attract different birds. I have always used a shepherd’s hook and have no squirrels.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow–no baffle? Hoping this set-up lasts until spring. I was fortunate that the squirrels were not destructive. Apparently some are. You inspired me to refill my suet feeder!

    Like

  3. tonytomeo says:

    Just wait until the squirrels get into your pantry!

    Like

    1. Oh no! You’re joking I hope. Bird seed is kept in a metal container in garage.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. tonytomeo says:

        Birdseed?! They want real food! They know you got chips and salsa in there!

        Like

  4. thegsandwich says:

    No squirrels without the baffle. Not sure how I managed this … but none so far.

    Liked by 1 person

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