Iâ€™ve been feeding the birds for a long time. In fact, we have home movies of birds at a feeder when we first moved into this house over 45 years ago and that feeder was one we brought with us from our previous home. Over time Iâ€™ve used a variety of feedersâ€”most hung from a tree or the eaves but some on posts, others on the ground. At one point I built a couple that used the swivel off furniture casters to rotate with the wind. Of late, however, we have stuck to one feeder, a three tube variety with a large umbrella top to protect the seeds from rain and snow. It is attached to a pulley line so we can get it far enough from the deck to keep the cats from bothering the birds but make it easily accessible for refilling. It is located between a flowering crab and our deck just off our sunroom where we can enjoy the birds as we eat our breakfast and lunch, as well as entertaining our cats with â€œcat TVâ€.
Over the years as well, I have fed a variety of food from a mixture of â€œsong birdâ€ seeds to straight thistle seed to a cracked corn combination. About a dozen or so years ago, after doing some research, I hit on feeding straight sunflower seeds as the best for both the nutritional needs of the birds, to attract the largest variety and to minimize the number of feeders I had to care for. The only problem I encountered was the damn seed husks. In the spring, after the snow melted, there was a huge pile of black sunflower husks under the feeder which, since they hid a few uneaten seeds, made it a Mecca for mice. It also turns out that these husks are an excellent herbicide so even once the husks were cleaned up (no easy task) no grass would grow under the feeder and, since this spot was in front of the cellar door, it proved a prime source for bringing mud inside. As with any problem, if one is willing to throw money at it, there is a solution. In my case the solution was sunflower hearts. These shelled sunflower seeds, although more expensive, are husk free and the birds cleaned them up. Even at a price of about three times that of the whole seed, they are less bulky, last twice as long and given the cleanliness, are a bargain as far as I am concerned. That is until the squirrels showed up.
Considering that we live in a rural place where there are plenty of trees, including a large number of native nut species, it is surprising that it took the squirrels nearly 30 years to discover our feeder. My mother, who lived about 500 yards away, had problems with them for yearsâ€”once they even carried her cheap plastic tube feeder down in the woods to clean it out at their leisure. In retrospect, it may well have been the use of sunflower seeds, but not long after I began feeding them the squirrels found us.
Now Iâ€™ve nothing against squirrels. For one thing, theyâ€™re cute and their antics around the feeder and with each other are entertaining. For another, theyâ€™re delicious, especially fricasseed or in stewâ€”they taste more like chicken than chicken. But at the bird feeder these freeloaders are an expensive nuisance. It wouldnâ€™t be too bad if they just ate a few seeds and left like the birds do, but they fill their stomachs, then their cheek pouches, carry away that food and, a few minutes later, come back for more. (I suspect they forget where the first load was stashed and never do eat it.) While theyâ€™re at the feeder, they aggressively keep the birds at bay. To top it off, their solution for getting at the seed in the feeder is to chew through whatever is between them and the food, destroying the feeder in the process.
Now there is a cottage industry that has grown up around keeping squirrels away from bird feeders. Books have been written, videos shot. One author even created a whole line of â€œOutwittingâ€¦â€ books after the success of his book, Outwitting Squirrels. (My older daughter coauthored one on dogs for the series as a matter of fact.) The problem is most of these methods work only briefly. Sooner or later the squirrels seem to find counter measures to combat each. They jump, shimmy and, seemingly, fly up, over, along and/or chew through anything that is used to keep a feeder away from them. In our case, they jumped from the deck railing, dropped down from the tree to the top of the feeder, and tightroped along the pulley line. The umbrella top didnâ€™t bother them; they just slid off it onto the feeder tray, then sat there and chewed notches in it to make the trip easier. They ruined one feeder by chewing through the plastic seed ports so I replaced it with one with aluminum perches. We yelled at them from inside the sunroom, opened the door and â€œshooedâ€ them away. All they did was move, defiantly, to the other side of the feeder. We even swung brooms, yard sticks and flyswatters at them, actually making contact sometimes. All they did was drop the 12 feet or so to the ground and return as soon as we went back inside. Even the cats proved no deterrent. Our biggest one nailed a few young ones which, apparently he found unappetizing, but the older, wiser adults stayed clear of him. He and the other two cats we allow outside have, apparently, lost interest. In the meantime, we watch the seed depth in the feeders drop and the amount we pay for seed increase.
Then my younger daughter gave us a solution. This past Christmas she and her husband gave us a Wild Bills Squirrel-Free Electronic Bird Feeder.
This feeder, a product of Natureâ€™s Needs Inc., is a hopper-type feeder built around positive and negative charged electrical poles that are insulated from one another. One is the hanger which goes through the feeder and connects to the metal seed tray at the bottom. The second is a metal disc on the baffle at the top of the feeder which is connected to a metal ring at the bottom of the hopper. This ring also includes metal perches at the three lower seed ports of the feeder. If an animal, say a squirrel, makes contact with both poles by trying to climb down the hanger to the baffle or standing on the tray and attempting to eat from a lower port, he completes the electrical circuit and gets what the brochure calls â€œa static correctionâ€. In other words, an electrical shock that is strong enough to surprise him and knock him off the feeder. The source of this current is a 9-volt battery.
Skeptical, I particularly filled and hung the feeder the day after Christmas and watched as the first squirrel approached. He jumped from the tree limb to the seed tray and kept right on going directly to the ground. Puzzled, he tried the down-the-hanger route. He was doing okay until he partly let go of the hanger and dropped to the baffle—and kept right on going to the ground. At this point he left. Apparently this was going to be a solution.
The next morning dawned rainy and cold. I looked out and here was one squirrel on the feed tray trying to chew his way into the feeder while a second that had figured out how to get under the baffle, was busily filling his seed pouches from on top of the seed hopper. You see, there is a flaw to this feeder. Apparently, to avoid overloading the circuit whenever the feeder gets wet, i.e. when it rains and/or snows, there is a fail-safe system that shuts down the current and only resets itself once it is dry. Since it was raining and the squirrels had not learned the system held a surprise for them, they were having a post Christmas feastâ€”this new feeder was bigger, had more seed ports and, as one found out, had an easy access lid. We spent most of the day chasing squirrels.
I am happy to report, however, that once the feeder dried and reset itself it has worked as advertised. In fact, after a few â€œstatic correctionsâ€ the squirrels seem to have given up. They climb up the tree or on to the railing, look longingly at the feeder, tails flicking, but do not jump to it. They are now reduced to scavenging for fallen seed under the feeder. They have not, however gone away completely and I do fear that we have not seen the last of them for several reasons. First, sooner or later, one of them is going to discover the thing shuts off when it is wet. Second, according to the instructions the battery will only last a maximum of 3 monthsâ€”less if there is a high number of â€œstatic correctionsâ€â€”and it is going to shut down without my noticing or changing it. Third, the instructions are explicit about keeping everything clean of â€œfilmâ€â€”read bird poopâ€”that will prevent contact and this film builds up fast. The fact that the company also offers replacement ports is a good indication that, sooner or later, something is going to be chewed. Finally, given the evolution of the squirrel, eventually they will grow some sort of insulated footgear that will allow them to circumvent the whole system. They can be persistent devils.
Addendum: A week after installing this feeder and watching mournful squirrels eyeing it I felt sorry for them so went out and bought a squirrel feeder. It is filled with cheap corn pellets that they donâ€™t find particularly tasty but they are coping, waiting for the day they can get back at the sunflower seed.