Chances are good that if you feed birds, you probably have spent a fair amount of time dreaming of how to outsmart squirrels. I've heard and read dozens of ways to discourage squirrels, most of which don't work, or, if they do work, don't work very well for very long.
First, squirrels are rodents. And rodents chew things. A common characteristic shared by all rodents includes two pairs of incisors - one pair above and one pair below. Their incisors never stop growing and are the reason why rodents must constantly gnaw on wood and other objects.
If they didn't chew, their incisors would become unusable. Gnawing helps hone the edges of those chisel-like teeth.
Occurring throughout most of Minnesota, gray squirrels are one of our most common tree squirrels. Other tree dwelling squirrels include fox and red squirrels, and northern and southern flying squirrels. Gray squirrels, typically gray in color, are sometimes black. And though some people believe that black squirrels are a different species of squirrel, black squirrels are simply black phased, or melanistic, gray squirrels.
As most people know (especially those who feed birds), squirrels are intelligent, agile and curious mammals. As well, for those who feed birds and have tried devising ways to keep the furry critters out of bird feeders, squirrels can also be downright maddening. I have stewed and schemed while watching gray squirrels, fox squirrels and the smaller yet feistier red squirrels raid my feeders time and time again. Last winter, I had as many as 16 gray squirrels and a couple of red squirrels hogging the feeders and filling their bellies with high priced, high protein, black oil sunflower seeds.
A few winters ago, Lakeland Public Television aired an educational and entertaining program that definitely gave viewers some great ideas for keeping bird feeders squirrel-free. One particular trick involved threading several two-liter plastic pop bottles horizontally onto a suspended wire. At the middle of this pop bottle and wire combo, hung a tube-style bird feeder.
The fun part was watching a squirrel try and reach the bird feeder by attempting to walk across the pop bottles. When the squirrel leaped onto the first pop bottle, the bottle spun and threw the squirrel to the ground below. No birdseed for that squirrel!
Another great trick used to outsmart squirrels I learned from Patricia Oldham of Bemidji. One of her bird feeders was mounted on a metal pole. Usually, of course, squirrels have no problem climbing poles, even metal ones, to raid bird feeders mounted on top of them. But what Pat had done was ingenious.
She had a Slinky slipped over the pole and attached to the underside of the bird feeder. The Slinky was stretched halfway down the length of the pole, so when a squirrel would jump up to grasp and climb the "pole", it would instead try and climb the Slinky. Well, as you might expect, the weight of the squirrel combined with the metal coils of the Slinky resulted in a hurried trip back down the pole! And a bewildered, frightened squirrel to boot!
My method of keeping squirrels off of a pole-mounted feeder is cruder, but has proven very effective. I laid a 3-foot by 3-foot piece of metal flat on top of the wood pole and secured it so the post was point-center below the metal platform. Sitting on the topside of the metal platform are the bird feeders. I get a kick out of watching gray squirrels climb that pole only to be foiled by the big, flat metal platform that they cannot, no matter how hard they study its underside, manage to climb on it or around it.
Still, if you're uninterested in plotting ways to keep squirrels out of your bird feeders, there are a few manufactured "squirrel proof" feeders you can purchase. Even with some of these types of feeders, squirrels will often find a way to "crack the safe." One of my squirrel-proof, tube-style feeders, for example, is housed inside a metal cage.
Birds have no difficulty whatsoever securing a meal from this feeder, but squirrels have a tough time. Yet even this feeder has its weakness. I've seen many a gray squirrel hanging upside down from it while digging between the metal grates to reach the portholes of the feeder where the sunflower seeds are located.
Squirrels of course eat more than just birdseed. In fact, they spend a lot more time in the woods eating natural foods than they do stuffing themselves at bird feeders, though it's sometimes hard to believe when you see squirrels putting on the pounds right before your eyes.
Other squirrel food includes mushrooms, fungi, nuts, fruits, seeds, flowers, buds, inner bark, leaves and sap from maple and birch trees (and sugar water from your hummingbird feeders!). Squirrels will also eat insects and other invertebrates, eggs, and even young birds.
Save for the nocturnal flying squirrels, most members of the squirrel family are daytime critters and are usually very visible for us to observe as they go about their activities. They are indeed important and beneficial mammals of the forest. Nevertheless, whether you love 'em or hate 'em, squirrels are here to stay as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at email@example.com.