Here’s something that may surprise you: Over fifty-five million Americans over the age of sixteen feed wild birds, and together they spend more than three billion dollars a year on bird food, and another eight-hundred million dollars a year on bird feeders, bird baths, bird houses, and other bird feeding accessories. That’s close to four billion dollars each year being spent to feed animals that have been satisfactorily feeding themselves since the Jurassic period.
Hi. I’m Rick, and I’m one of those fifty-five million lunatics.
This began as most good intentions do, which is to say gradually, and with a half-hearted attempt. I bought a cheap bird feeder along with a bag of cheap birdseed, and hung the overflowing combination of the two in a tree. As I watched from the window, I was expecting to see a glorious palette of colorful birds fly in and gently peck at the seed. That did not happen. There wasn’t any chorus of birdsongs, and certainly nothing at all that resembled an Audubon Society watercolor painting. What I got instead was a furry dervish of squirrels that quickly devoured every last seed along with most of the bird feeder, leaving behind a terrifying carnage of seed hulls and bits of plastic.
I soon found out that squirrels are the mortal enemy of people who feed birds, not because they can’t be fun to watch, but because they are hungry thieves that would make themselves a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on your kitchen counter if they could figure out how to work a doorknob. If there is a convention somewhere for people who like to feed birds (and I’m sure there is), topic numero uno has to be how to keep squirrels out of the bird feeders.
I kept at this until the seed ran out, which wasn’t long because the squirrels had chewed the tiny bird-sized feeder ports into gaping garage doors that were large enough to fit an entire squirrel plus his engorged seed gut. As quickly as I poured the seed in, it sifted through the oversized openings to the ground where eager squirrels waited with shopping bags to haul it away.
I stopped this madness for a few weeks, only to try it again with a bird feeder that had metal around the feeder ports. It didn’t take long before the squirrels figured out how to shimmy down the feeder and shake the seed out to their hungry buddies on the ground. That’s pretty darned smart, which left me wondering why they sent chimps into space instead of squirrels. In fact, if they had blasted a missile full of sunflower seeds to the moon, squirrels would have figured out a way to get there long before Neil Armstrong.
I was determined to make this work, so I went out and bought a large green metal disc, and hung it over the feeder. This was supposed to stop squirrels, but all it did was look as if a hurricane had blown a green garbage can lid in the tree. The theory behind this device was that squirrels would fall off the disc as they were trying to crawl down to the feeder, leaving them befuddled, and wondering what just happened. They were befuddled for about a day until they realized that they were capable of leaping several miles with their comically muscular rear legs, and landing directly on the feeder. This technique enabled them to bypass the disc altogether, and help themselves to whatever they wanted. I started to put out rolls of floss for them because, you know, I cared about their dental hygiene.
This bird feeding fiasco would have ended in frustration right then and there, but I was stubborn enough to stick with it long enough to get the colorful birds to come into my yard. Sure, anybody can attract a house finch or a sparrow. Those things will fly around in a Walmart for generations, but I wanted the rose-breasted grosbeaks, and the yellow rumped warblers. Maybe even a titmouse or a dickcissel or a hairy woodpecker or whatever other birds had names that would make a ten-year old boy laugh. These were the colorful, but finicky birds that would ignore the wrong feeder, the wrong seed, and of course, wouldn’t be seen hobnobbing with rodents, but they were also the colorful birds with interesting habits that I wanted to see when I looked out the window.
I did some reading and asked around a bit, and found out that the colorful, good looking birds preferred a combination of nuts, berries and seeds, not the cheap dried out junk that I was offering. I spent a little more on a good mix, and within a few days, there were some colorful birds on the feeder. This lasted until the squirrels figured out that they too liked a premium mix even more than the cheap stuff. They devoured the whole tube within minutes, unbuttoned their pants, and then kicked back and watched football with a bowl of bird granola and some guacamole dip.
Something had to be done. I was on a mission now, so on my next trip to the store, I bought a packet of powdered cayenne pepper. Apparently birds can’t taste it, but it’s not the seasoning of choice for squirrels. Simply mix it with the seed, which I did, and it really worked. A squirrel went for the seed, and began rubbing his face like crazy. The effect didn’t last long, but before I knew it, a few more colorful birds came back, and the squirrels stayed away. It was amazing.
This lasted for about half a bag of seed until one day I reached up and opened the cap to fill the feeder, and at that very moment, the wind picked up and blew about a pound of cayenne pepper dust in my face.
“What the … AAAAAAAAEEE!!!!!”
I dropped the seed, and instinctively rubbed my eyes, which wasn’t the smartest thing to do because my hands were frosted with a layer of fresh cayenne pepper powder.
“Are you (bad word) kidding me … AAAAAAAAEEE!!!!!”
Through my burning tears, I could see the squirrels up in the tree pointing and rubbing their beady little eyes with an exaggerated flourish. “Oh boo-hoo-hoo. Thanks for the peanuts, jackass. Who’s your daddy? C’mon, who’s your squirrel daddy?”
That was it. I went inside, washed out my eyes, and then came out and yanked the feeder from the tree. My grand experiment in bird feeding was officially over. Done. Whatever seed I had left, I dumped in a pile on the ground, not caring what or who ate it. Weeks later, I mowed over whatever sprouted with a vengeance.
And that’s how my bird feeding hobby ground to a teary-eyed halt, at least until we moved a few years later.
Meanwhile, A Few Years Later…
We built our new house on a wooded piece of land with five-story pine trees, fifty-year old maples, and large honeysuckle bushes already in abundance. Just outside the kitchen window, right where I sit every morning for breakfast, there was an enormous white pine tree with a thick, nearly horizontal branch about eight feet off the ground. It was begging for a bird feeder. To make things even better, I could see all kinds of colorful birds already flying around the yard. They were practically lined up, politely waiting to be fed.
Son-of-a-pipit; we had built our house right in the middle of an aviary.
So this is what I learned, and it seemed so obvious. Birds like vegetation. Lots of vegetation. Bushes, trees, dead trees, dead bushes—all the stuff that people normally clear out to make a yard look manicured is the stuff that attracts the birds, and once they are in a neighborhood where they feel safe, it’s easier to coax them in to feed them. On the downside, this was also a giant Marriott for squirrels, but I was older and wiser now. Older, for sure, and at least I hoped I was wiser than a squirrel.
I had the opportunity, now all I needed was the means.
Mrs. G. and I were at a garden show, and there was a display from a store in our area that sold bird feeders made by a company called Droll Yankees. Never in a million years did I think I’d spend close to one hundred dollars for a bird feeder, but I did. It was guaranteed for life against squirrel damage, and the design was one that was clearly well planned to foil even the hungriest, most ambitious squirrel. Presenting the Yankee Whipper, arguably the world’s best birdfeeder.
It holds five pounds of seed, and has four spring-loaded perches calibrated to hold (up to) the weight of a cardinal, so the bigger crows and blue jays can’t light on the perches without tipping off. Ditto for squirrels. I could fill this thing with peanut butter coated macadamia nuts, and the squirrels couldn’t get near it without falling off. They’d try, but they would fail and FYI—squirrels aren’t used to falling, so they don’t do it very gracefully. Watching a normally acrobatic squirrel cartwheel off a bird feeder is the Three Stooges of outdoor hysteria.
I did put an Arundale baffle* over the top because they were chewing at the metal cap, but other than that, we have had one hundred percent success. I called the company to get a new cap—which they shipped out for free—and this feeder has been hanging outside year ‘round for ten years, and it still looks brand new.
So now, the big question: Do I still get squirrels? Heck yeah, but they can only eat what’s on the ground, which is OK by me. Our dog likes to chase them around the yard, so that’s fun on several levels, and when we have any sort of compost heap fodder, we’ll put a little out where they can find it.
In a few weeks, the indigo buntings, orioles, warblers and every other bird, including the hummingbirds will be back, and they’ll be perching a few feet from our kitchen window and the back porch. For me, watching their activity first thing in the morning over a fresh cup of coffee is nearly as relaxing as being on vacation. Maybe it’s my age or maybe it’s because I like seeing the quirks of each species of bird, but yeah—I feed the birds, and after all these years, I’ve finally figured out how to outwit a squirrel. They’re smart, but I’m finally a little smarter, and after all these years, I think we’ve found a way to coexist. I chalk that up as progress.
*I recommend this baffle over the flat metal type because they work. I also have one over a small peanut feeder, which drives the squirrels crazy because they can’t get past it. It’s also the only way I’ve found to keep squirrels out of a suet feeder. The only modification I did was to lace a fender washer over the mounting chain so it rests on the top of the baffle, because squirrels will try to chew through the plastic. The washer stops them cold.