How to Keep Squirrels from Eating Your Birdseed

It’s a common tale.

You buy a couple of bird feeders. You load ‘em and hang ‘em up, before kicking back with a cold one and waiting for the birds to show up.

Any minute now…any…minute…

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But while you may get a handful of inquisitive avians, most of the attention seems to be coming from an entirely different type of critter: the ubiquitous grey squirrel.

The grey squirrel is an infamous adversary to those trying to feed local birds, and they can lead to plenty of frustration when they identify an easy food source like your feeders.

But don’t worry – there are several ways you can wage (friendly) war against these furred four-footers. I’ll try to share a few of the most effective, affordable, and cruelty-free approaches below. Many of the solutions are pretty wallet-friendly too – some are essentially free.

Bird Seed Is for the Birds! Six Squirrel-Stopping Solutions

You need to know a little about grey squirrels (including some of the reasons you really don’t want to feed them), but we’ll do so in a bit.

To start, I’m just going to jump in and share six of the best ways to prevent squirrels from consuming your bird seed. As you’ll see, some work better than others, but every circumstance is different; something that thwarts the squirrels in your backyard may not even slow them down in another yard.

Point being, you need to be ready and willing to experiment.

Oh, and one other thing: It is often helpful – if not necessary – in some locations to employ several of these solutions at the same time.  

1. Make Dinner Invitees Fly

Admittedly, this is a somewhat vague strategy, but hear me out.

Songbirds – and get ready for me to drop some serious science on ya – can fly. On the other hand, squirrels cannot. I’ll give you a minute to process such a revelation.

Kidding aside, the gist of this approach is best explained via an example.

Consider a window feeder.

They normally consist of a clear plastic, hopper-style feeder with suction cups. You fill the feeder, stick it on the outside of your kitchen window, and watch the birds feed while you wash dishes or sip your morning coffee.

This type of set up probably wouldn’t completely deter squirrels, and you’d see them showing up to some degree.

But you could adjust things a bit to obtain better results.

For example, you could put the feeder near the top of a sliding glass door or in the middle of a really big window. The birds will still have no problems accessing the feeder (potential reflection problems aside), but if you get the feeder far enough from the window sill, you can likely make it pretty tough for the squirrels to reach.

These kinds of specific circumstances aside, this is more of an ethos or general approach than it is a specific strategy. For that matter, you’re likely already embracing this method to an extent by using poles or suspension cables – you’re just not blocking one potential avenue at the squirrels’ disposal.

But that’s OK.

As you’ll soon notice, many other squirrel-deterring strategies focus on blocking that final remaining route.

2. Baffles and Other Barriers

The market is full of commercial products designed to block a squirrel’s access route to the seed. Innovative individuals have also devised countless DIY solutions in the same vein.

You apply these types of barriers to the cable above or pole beneath your feeder. Some will also work on horizontally situated cables or poles that provide the squirrels with access. Many are essentially circles or cones that are so big that the squirrel can’t reach around them, but there are myriad designs available.

I think the [TK] is one of the best all-around options that’ll work in a variety of circumstances. It’s not the cheapest option around, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; you’re going to be hanging this thing up outdoors and squirrels are going to try to break it. You get what you pay for with baffles.

Incidentally, this one and this one are also pretty decent options, if you don’t like the [TK] for some reason. They’re both perfectly fine, I just prefer the [TK] instead.

If you have budgetary limitations, I’d recommend going the DIY route.

This video shows you how to make a simple, no-frills baffle that’ll likely work well and cost relative pocket change. You likely have most of the necessary materials laying around the house already, and you should feel free to experiment anytime you’re inspired to do so.

[VIDEO]

3. Slick Shoes: Lubrication to the Rescue

As another take on the “make dinner invitees fly” strategy, you can use a little lubrication to make it (essentially) impossible for the local squirrels to access your seed. Just grab some vegetable oil and have at it. You’ll want to apply a thin film to any poles or cables used to mount the feeder.

Just be sure to avoid doing so from great heights – you don’t want to hurt the squirrels when they try to complete your slippery obstacle course. A squirrel will likely bounce back up after taking a 4- or 5-foot fall onto your lawn without batting an eye. But you don’t want Captain Chubby Cheeks tumbling to the ground from a wire 20 feet above your driveway.

Obviously, because birds are capable of avoiding these lubed-up cables and poles completely, this won’t have much effect at all on your attempts to keep them fed. Nor will it even reduce the diversity of species visiting your feeder, like some other squirrel-blocking strategies do.

The only problem with this approach is that you’ll have to re-coat the squirrel pathways periodically. You’d probably need to do so once or twice a week, as well as following every significant rain event. That could be more work than you’re willing to invest. 

4. Change Up the Menu

This is typically my favorite way of deterring squirrels – I just offer seeds and other foods that squirrels don’t seem to find as valuable as sunflower seeds or peanuts.

Safflower seed is usually the first recommendation that comes up in squirrel-centric discussions, and it serves as a great starting point. While squirrels will eat it, most don’t appear particularly motivated to obtain it.

Throw a fistful of safflower seed on the ground, and the squirrels will probably eat it. I mean, it’s right there…

But if you put some safflower seed in a hanging feeder, which will already force the squirrel to invest some effort, you won’t see squirrels setting their watches by your feeder-refilling schedule. They’ll likely spend their time searching for other food sources.

On the downside, safflower seed isn’t as beloved by birds as sunflower seed, peanuts, or other preferred foods are. But, some – notably cardinals and many of their common flock-mates, like chickadees and house finches – appear to relish it.

Other foods that are helpful in this manner include:

  • Thistle seed. Most squirrels will politely decline thistle seed when offered. The problem is, thistle seed isn’t particularly appealing to a diverse cross section of bird species, either. That said, goldfinches, house finches, several sparrows, common redpolls, mourning doves and dark-eyed juncos appear to enjoy thistle. Note that many ground-dwelling rodents will vacuum up spilled thistle seed, so keep things tidy beneath your feeder.
  • Sugar water. Squirrels may lap up a bit of sugar water if you left a bowl sitting out, but they aren’t likely to go out of their way to obtain it. Hummingbirds and orioles, on the other hand, find sugar-water solutions quite tasty. In fact, a few other species – including some not-so-common feeder visitors – will enjoy the sweet offering from time to time. This would include mockingbirds, warblers, and the colorful tanagers, among others.
  • Insects. Contrary to popular thought, squirrels are best described as omnivorous, and they will catch and eat little critters from time to time. But they aren’t super-likely to do so, so you may want to consider setting out a dish of mealworms (or some other edible beetle larvae) to feed the bluebirds and any other bug-eaters in your vicinity. 

If one were so inclined, one could likely maintain a relatively squirrel-free feeder situation by simply sticking to these foods. You probably won’t draw quite as many bird species as you would by offering a more mainstream menu, but that’s why you also put out a water source and nesting opportunities, right?

5. Filter Out the Fluffy

Filtering is a clever way of keeping squirrels away from your bird seed. The only problem is, it will also block some of the birds who may otherwise visit your feeding station.

Filtering essentially involves creating a sieve that allows relatively small birds to pass, while blocking big ‘ol bulky squirrels.

And all of this could really be better said by just saying wrap your feeder in a chicken wire basket or some other type of metal “cage.” Don’t use plastic, as the squirrels will just chew through it. Also, be sure to design some way to access the feeder, so you can clean and refill it regularly.

Honestly, if you don’t mind dropping a few bucks, it’s easier to just buy a feeder that already features this type of size-excluding exterior. The [TK] is a great choice. It won’t hold a ton of seed, but it’s relatively easy to access and refill, so this isn’t a huge problem. And more importantly – it appears to be very effective at keeping the squirrels at bay.

6. Squirrel-Proof Feeders

Look, if you just want a solution and don’t mind breaking out the credit card, just buy a high-quality squirrel-proof feeder.

It’ll cost you a bit of cash, but it’ll be easy to fill, easy to hang, and – most importantly – it’ll work.

Soon, you’ll be loading that bad boy up with delicious black oil sunflower seed and watching it all go to the bevy of birds that turn up each day. Meanwhile, those no-good squirrels will be forced to watch idly, jealous fire burning in their eyes.

Well, maybe it won’t be all that dramatic, but it will solve your squirrel problem.

Once again, there’s no shortage of models on the market, but I like the [TK] and [TK].

Capsaicin: Cure or Cruel?

Capsaicin is a naturally occurring compound found in some plants – specifically, Capsicum annuum and some of its domestic descendants. It is responsible for the burning sensation the fruits of these plants can cause, and it is thought to have evolved as a defense mechanism that protects the fruits from mammals and/or fungi.

But that begs an important question: Don’t these plants depend on animals to eat and subsequently disperse the seeds contained inside the fruit?

Many do (at least, in the wild).

And that’s why it is fortunate for peppers that birds don’t appear to experience the burning sensation capsaicin triggers in mammals. So, the birds are free to consume the peppers greedily, while the mammals would largely learn to avoid them. This obviously proved advantageous to the plants, and so the system persisted.

Humans have obviously had a hand in creating some of the ridiculously hot options available at the grocery store (as well as the bell pepper, which produces no capsaicin).

Given all of this, bird-feeding enthusiasts eventually decided to try mixing some capsaicin-containing compounds in with their bird seed. It proved somewhat effective, and some percentage of birders continue to do so.

A study conducted in the year 2000 by researchers at Cornell University even experimented with capsaicin-coated seed. They found that it worked pretty darn well:

  • It reduced the amount of time squirrels spent at the feeder.
  • It reduced the amount of seed squirrels consumed at the feeder.
  • It did not influence bird diversity.
  • It did not reduce (and, in fact, increased) the amount of seed the birds consumed

So, if capsaicin is so great, why isn’t it bird-feeding 101? For that matter, why didn’t I recommend it already?

Well, it may be a good solution in some cases, but I think there are some problems with the approach.

  1. It isn’t especially easy or convenient to add capsaicin to your bird seed. You’re likely talking about adding pretty significant quantities of finely ground cayenne pepper to the seed, which will give you numerous chances to get the powder on your skin, eyes, nose or mouth. There are plenty of stories circulating about people being on the unfortunate end of an unexpected wind gust while dealing with this stuff, and the ramifications do not sound fun.
  2. It is tricky to mix capsaicin and bird seed in anything approaching a precise manner. The Cornell researchers described the concentrations they used, but it is unlikely that the average bird feeder will be willing or able to reliably mix capsaicin and bird seed in significant quantities on a day-in, day-out basis. Commercial capsaicin squirrel deterrents may be easier to mix, but that’ll increase the cost of this approach.
  3. It is kinda rude. Capsaicin appears to trigger a pretty intuitive reaction in squirrels. They’re often seen wiping their mouths, for example, after consuming a small amount. Others even roll around on the ground afterwards. And, while we often talk about grey squirrels as being the “enemy,” this is for dramatic purposes only. They can be very frustrating to deal with, but they’re still deserving of respect. They’re only eating the bird seed to survive and raise families. Maybe it only makes them feel kinda rotten for a day, but a bad day for a wild animal can end up being the day on which it isn’t swift enough to evade a predator.
  4. It’s not necessarily clear that it doesn’t cause birds any discomfort. While birds don’t seem to be deterred by capsaicin-coated seed, there haven’t been any long-term studies on the ways in which it may disrupt their digestive process or hamper their overall health.    

Given all of this, I’ve always been a bit trigger-shy about this approach. But, if you are truly being overrun by squirrels, and you’re at your wit’s end, I’d recommend purchasing a seed that’s been pre-coated with capsaicin, like Cole’s Hot Meats Bird Seed. Most of those who’ve tried it found it effective, and – if you’re going to use this approach – it makes sense to do so with high-value foods.

Interestingly, chipmunks do not seem to be as easily deterred by capsaicin-treated bird seed. This may be because they typically stuff their mouths with food, which they haul off to a safe place to store or consume it. Perhaps they don’t end up eating it, but they steal it just the same.

Image from Morguefile.

Learning About the Eastern Grey Squirrel: Know Your Adversary

A variety of different squirrel and chipmunk species may turn up at your feeder, but none seem to have the seed-stealing skill that eastern grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) do. So, it is important to familiarize yourself with the critters with whom you will encounter once you start feeding the birds.

Basic Biology

Grey squirrels are smallish mammals, who reach lengths of about 20 inches or so and usually weigh about 1 pound or a bit more. Despite their common name, “grey” squirrels can range in color from nearly white to brown to black. They’re omnivores, who’ll eat just about anything they can get their hands on, but nuts, seeds, fruit, flowers, fungi and the occasional small critter are some of their most important food sources.

Hardwood forests are likely their preferred habitat, although they’ll do just fine in pine or mixed forests too. They’ll also survive in fields, parks, and – as you’re no doubt aware — suburban backyards. In fact, you will often find more squirrels in disturbed (human-occupied) areas than pristine wilderness, thanks to the food and protection from predators we provide. Being diurnal animals, they’re rarely hard to spot, and most people “tune them out” over time, as they’re such commonly seen critters.

Grey squirrels will often den in tree hollows during the winter, before moving to “dreys” or nests in the summer. Dreys are often easy to identify as a large clump of leaves and other vegetation in the fork of a tree branch, about 20 or so feet off the ground. They don’t hibernate, and they’ll remain active throughout the winter whenever the weather allows.

Grey squirrels are historically native to the eastern half of the United States and portions of Canada. However, these weedy critters are capable of squeaking out a living just about anywhere, so they’ve drastically expanded their range. This includes several places in the western U.S. and Canada, and they’ve also popped up in Europe, South Africa and Australia. In many of these places, they’re outcompeting historically native species.

Squirrels typically produce a litter of two to four young in the spring, but large, healthy, older females may produce a second litter in the summer. Food availability is key for second litters – a fact which we’ll discuss further in a bit. Many young squirrels die before reaching maturity, but most who reach adulthood live for five years or more.

Relevant Cool Stuff

It’s important to know the basic biology of squirrels, but it’s more fun to talk about some of their impressive abilities and a few neat anecdotes about the species. So, here:

  • Squirrels have very cushioned feet that enable them to drop safely from great heights. However, most appear reluctant to drop more than about 8 feet or so.
  • Squirrels use their tails for balance and additional insulation in cold weather, but they’re also used in communication. If you ever hear a squirrel barking while resting on a tree trunk and waving its tail, look farther into the forest – you’ll often see one or more others mirroring the behavior. 
  • Squirrels are quite fast; some individuals have been clocked running 20 miles per hour.
  • Although individual jumping abilities vary, most grey squirrels are capable of jumping about 4 to 5 feet straight off the ground, and perhaps as far as 10 feet in the horizontal plane.
  • According to Penn State University, black-colored grey squirrels were far more common historically. It is presumed that human hunting activity made the grey color more advantageous than black coloration, which is primarily useful for evading the detection of predatory birds.

Your Motivation: Why Do You Want to Repel Squirrels in the First Place?

Honestly, you don’t have to repel squirrels if you don’t want to. Go ahead and ignore them if you think excluding them is all a bunch of unnecessary, wasted effort.

Just be sure to bookmark this page and come back to it in a month once you’ve started to consider importing a pack of coyotes or velociraptors to help restore some kind of order.  

A few of the most obvious reasons to avoid feeding the squirrels include:

  • Squirrels will eat more bird seed than you can imagine. You may find it necessary to refill your feeders twice or thrice as often as you would if birds were the only feeder visitors you were attracting.
  • Squirrels often keep birds at bay. Most birds don’t appear to be in mortal fear of squirrels, and they’ll still partake in the food you provide, but they’ll usually yield the prime feeding spots once the furry ones show up.
  • You’ll end up with a lot of seed going to waste. Squirrels are not only messy eaters, but they also pack quite a wallop at feeding stations. They’ll simply kick some of the seed off platform feeders inadvertently, or they may cause tube-style or hopper feeders to rock back and forth as they jump on and off.
  • You’ll be more likely to attract rodents. Not all of that seed on the ground will go to waste – mourning doves and other ground-feeders will consume some of it. But the bigger issue is that rats, mice and other rodents will undoubtedly locate this easy food source and take advantage.
  • The local squirrel population will likely grow. Feeding your local squirrels will not only help them to survive, it’ll often allow them to reproduce more effectively. Well-fed female squirrels are often able to produce two litters in a year. This may not be catastrophic the first year, but by the time you get to year two or three (and the original squirrels are now grandparents or great grandparents), you could be dealing with a very serious issue.

Don’t feel too bad for the squirrels, though. Scads of species are suffering population declines due to human behavior in one way or another, but grey squirrels are one of the few for whom humans are helpful. Squirrels will likely be around long after humans have disappeared and stopped feeding the birds.

Pro Tip: While you’re thinking about the problems squirrels represent, be sure to learn about some of the problems other birds can cause around your feeding station.

One Last Thing: Be Nice to the Squirrels

I’ll admit it — I cackled like a schoolboy when I first saw this:

But while these kind of feats of engineering are entertaining, they could seriously injure a squirrel. The same could be said of “solutions” that involve electric shocks, painful traps or poisons.

And in the real world, a sick or injured animal is not only less likely to survive than his or her able-bodied counterparts, the poor critter may also be suffering.

So, don’t be a jerk – it’s just cruel.

The squirrel in this particular case seems to have emerged unscathed, but people have gone over Niagara Falls in a barrel and lived to tell the tail – but that doesn’t mean it is a good idea.

Deter the squirrels but remember to respect them in the process.

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Again, squirrels are worthy and capable adversaries, so you’ll often find that you need to employ multiple strategies to keep them from ransacking your feeders. Be sure to read other articles providing some squirrel-stopping solutions, as they may provide alternative strategies or simply explain them in a way that makes more sense to you.

Just be skeptical of anyone selling solutions that “always” work. In my experience, the bird-feeder-squirrel arms race is fraught with exceptions, outliers and individual squirrels who are simply more adept at accessing that sweet, sweet birdseed than others.

I wish you the best of luck in your attempts and encourage you to share your thoughts, successes, failures and anything else you’d like to say or ask in the comments below.

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