Squirrels have long been a source of fascination and frustration for gardeners and bird enthusiasts engaged in a near-constant battle to keep them away from the nuts and seeds put out for birds.
Greased poles. Loud music. Motion-activated sprinklers. Squirrels almost seem to relish the challenge.
"They are crafty little guys," said David Pederson, manager of Critter Control of Colorado Springs, where the most common species is the tree-dwelling fox squirrel. "They are the ones going after bird feeders. They're super acrobatic and will do anything to get in there."
The majority of squirrel-related calls come from homeowners whose attics have been infiltrated by the arboreal rodents, notorious for gnawing on electrical wires, compressing insulation and generally gaming up the place.
"That's our main focus for clients. If you can get the house sealed up real tight then you're protecting your largest investment," Pederson said. "When it comes to outdoor bird feeders, plants, etc., that's definitely a different challenge."
And possibly a futile one in the long run.
"I tell people if you don't want squirrels going after your bird feeders, pull them up and put them inside, but people don't really like that answer," Pederson said. "There are definitely a lot of things you can try, but fox squirrels are so clever. Pretty much anything I've seen put out, they'll play around with to figure out how to get the seed out."
Still, choosing a technique to try to address outdoor squirrels depends on your situation.
"For feeders in trees, people will put a wrap around the tree at the base so they (squirrels) can't climb up, but that won't work if you have 100 trees. Squirrels can easily leap from tree to tree," Pederson said.
Some gardeners swear by capsaicin-based squirrel repellent sprays; others by scare tactics, such as decoy owls or noise-making devices. The latter technique won't work for bird enthusiasts, though, as it tends to clear an area of all wildlife, Pederson said.
As for commercial squirrel-proof feeders, "those are fun to watch," he said. "They're supposed to prevent the squirrel from easily accessing the feed, but I've seen squirrels take 4- or 5-foot jumps from trees to loose seeds from the feeder, then pick them up off the ground. They're pretty clever when it comes to finding ways around that stuff."
Bill Adler Jr. has heard all the strategies and tried many of them.
The 57-year-old humor writer has been collecting tips to keep squirrels from avian meals for three decades, and he recently updated his 1988 book, "Outwitting Squirrels: 101 Cunning Stratagems to Reduce Dramatically the Egregious Misappropriation of Seed From Your Birdfeeder by Squirrels" (Chicago Review Press), for a third edition.
The most important thing to know? While technology has changed, squirrels still have little else to do all day but strategize. And they're good at it.
Be willing to try a few different strategies, Adler said, and don't sweat it too much.
"I have to admit, I care a little less (these days). I care in a different way," he said of his squirrel strategy. Squirrels still eat more from his bird feeders than the birds do, but "I don't mind that I personally don't always win. I enjoy outwitting them, I do. But these days I win the battles and not the war."
Here are some tips from Adler and others to bring a little harmony to your backyard:
- Resigned to the fact that squirrels are going to call his Washington, D.C., yard home, Adler puts out some unsalted mixed nuts along his steps. "If you feed them, they will tend to leave the bird feeder alone," he says.
- Try filling your feeder with safflower seeds, which are high in fat and protein. They're a favorite of backyard birds, but squirrels aren't fans.
- For high-tech options, weight-activated feeders will cover up the feeding ports when a squirrel latches on.
- Bird enthusiast Barbara Bergin of Austin, Texas, has a slippery solution: petroleum jelly on the feeder pole. "As a bonus, it's also fun to watch the squirrels slip off the hanger," she said.