Save Your Bird Feeders From Squirrels

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Many homeowners think of squirrels as tree rats with bushy tails – nasty nuisances that scurry about backyards to pilfer birdseed meant for colorful cardinals, chirping chickadees or gorgeous goldfinches.

How dare these bothersome brown creatures steal food from our flittering friends of the air?

Pepper Spray and Safflower Seed as Deterrents
Take heart, bird lovers. There are products now on the market whose sole purpose is to deter these seed-stealing menaces that invade the tranquil feeding areas of backyard birds.

The U.S. Department of Interior estimates that 55 million Americans feed wild birds each year, spending $3 billion on birdseed and another $750 million on feeders, baths, houses and nesting boxes. Given such a large monetary investment, it is not surprising that homeowners will also go to great lengths to foil squirrels that prey upon feathery backyard sanctuaries.

“A major deterrent for squirrels is to coat birdseed with pepper spray, because the pepper is hot to a squirrel’s lips,” says Dave Duty, senior product manager for the Tennessee Farmers Cooperative in La Vergne. “The only trouble with this idea is that squirrels will root through a bird feeder until they come across a seed that might not be coated with pepper. Even if they can’t find an edible morsel, homeowners end up with an empty feeder and the ground covered with seeds – which other animals will eat.”

One possible way to outsmart squirrels is to fill bird feeders with safflower seeds, which are not only bitter to squirrels but also undesirable to “garbage” birds such as starlings, crows and blackbirds.

“Safflower seeds can be poured into open hoppers on bird feeders because squirrels will only eat those seeds as a last resort,” Duty says. “And the squirrels won’t drain them from the feeders like they would when finding black oil sunflower seeds, which they love.”

Duty also suggests placing a bird feeder in one section of a backyard, and a separate feeder for squirrels in another area far from the bird haven.

“The only trouble with this particular plan is if you slack off from filling the squirrel feeder, they will immediately invade the bird feeders,” Duty says. “Squirrels are devilish opportunists, taking whatever food is most easily accessible to them.”

Squirrel-Proof Bird Feeders
In recent years, the all-out war against squirrels has escalated throughout the bird feeder industry. One of the more popular models is a caged feeder, featuring a plastic or PVC tube that encases the birdseed.

A wire cage is then wrapped around the tube, keeping squirrels from getting to the feeder.

“A drawback to caged feeders is that only the smallest of birds can get in, such as titmice, purple finches and downy woodpeckers,” Duty says. “Cardinals and blue jays won’t fit through the wire openings, and those two types of birds are favorites among most enthusiasts.”

Other squirrel-proofing ideas include hanging a feeder from thin fishing line that squirrels have difficulty balancing upon, or keeping a hanging feeder at least 15 feet from buildings or trees so that the squirrels can’t leap onto the feeder.

But Duty, who is a bird fancier himself and has waged battles with many squirrels in his own backyard, says the only products that really work for him are counterbalance feeders.

“A counterbalance system features a feeding hopper whose ledge has a hinge-spring apparatus, so when a squirrel sits on the ledge, its heavier weight closes the feeding holes,” he says.

Pamela Neiman – owner of Wild Birds Unlimited franchises in Nashville, Franklin and Goodlettsville – agrees that counterbalance feeders are the best combatants against the furry pests.

“The past few years have seen products hit the market with names like Squirrel-Be-Gone, Squirrel Buster and Yankee Flipper,” Neiman says. “In fact, the Yankee Flipper features a battery-powered feeder tray that spins the squirrel off the hopper ledge because the squirrel is too heavy. Homeowners can actually set the spring tension of that feeder so it can repel unwanted heavier birds as well.”

The cost of the Yankee Flipper is a pricey $110.99, but Neiman says her stores sell hundreds of the model every year.

“It’s kind of amazing to what lengths some bird lovers will reach in order to feed the songbirds that live in their backyards,” she says. “It has become a big business, with many people motivated to do whatever it takes to outsmart those bothersome squirrels.”

Corn for Squirrel-Lovers
But there’s a flip side to every story. For every homeowner who hates squirrels, there are plenty of people who fondly view the animals as poofy-tailed puppy dogs. They enjoy watching the fuzzy mammals play in the backyard, and almost claim the entertaining animals as their own outdoor pets.

For that reason, David and Judy Mitchell of Grainger County began producing Mitchell Bend Grains Squirrel Corn nearly 10 years ago. The yellow field corn that the couple uses to feed their dairy cows also doubles as packaged feed that ground squirrels love to munch on.

“We never heard of squirrel corn prior to 10 years ago,” David Mitchell says. “Then one day, my uncle, Ted Mitchell, suddenly asked me for a 50-pound bag of corn for his friend who owned a country grocery store. A short time later, Uncle Ted wanted 100 40-pound bags, and I realized that something odd was going on.”

Mitchell asked his uncle about the unusual request of 100 bags, and found out that Uncle Ted’s friend was selling the product as squirrel corn – just as fast as he could get his hands on the stuff.

“We decided to put together 100 plastic bags filled with 10 pounds of corn apiece, and went to area mom and pop stores with this unusual product,” Mitchell says. “After explaining to everybody what squirrel corn is, we would leave 10 bags with the stipulation that if the squirrel corn didn’t sell, we’d pick up the bags in a few days. But there’s never been a bag of squirrel corn that has remained unsold in our 10-year history.”

Mitchell Bend Grains Squirrel Corn is now sold at several stores throughout the Knoxville area, including six Wal-Mart locations, Knoxville Seed Co. and Mayo Garden Centers. Each 10-pound bag sells for $3.25, and the Mitchells sell more than 15,000 bags each year.

“We’ve had to work hard at this business, but it has certainly been good to us,” Mitchell says. “Who would have ever thought that the corn fed to our dairy cows is now fed to squirrels? In fact, our company motto is, ‘The squirrels get the best, and the cows get the rest.’”

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