Saturday, January 4, 2020

Do squirrels scare birds away from bird feeders?

I've never lived in a place where squirrels were a problem at my backyard bird feeders. However, in many areas the "squirrels vs birds at the feeder" issue is a source of much anxiety and frustration. In researching this article I found many complaints and questions that people have about squirrels taking over bird feeders. I present them here.

First of all, squirrels do, indeed, scare birds away from feeders. Usually squirrels just take over the feeder and keep birds from getting the food. However, though rare, squirrels can harm birds. So, what can you do to keep squirrels away from your bird feeders? I have a couple of ideas. Read on, please.

Photo of squirrel standing on ground with nut in his mouth
Squirrel
Photo by Greg Gillson

Do squirrels harm birds?


Squirrels are part of the natural environment. Many people enjoy watching their antics in town and country alike. And most of the time birds aren't afraid of squirrels. Some people ask: "Do birds like squirrels?" The answer is that the birds don't really care. If the squirrel gets too close, the birds fly away.

Problems arise, however, when squirrels become too numerous or aggressive and take over bird feeders. A single squirrel can simply sit in a bird feeder and keep birds away. These cute little fuzzy guys just keep eating until they've consumed all the bird food!

As long as there is ample bird seed in the bird feeder, squirrels generally ignore the birds and concentrate on eating all the birdseed. If there is just one or two squirrels the birds will likely remain near the feeders and try to get bird food whenever they can get past the squirrels. If there are many squirrels, though, birds may be scared away from the feeders altogether.

Do squirrels eat birds?


Most people probably think of squirrels as furry-tailed vegetarians munching away on nuts, fruits, and other plant food. That's not strictly true, however. Though rare, at times squirrels also eat insects, frogs, lizards, rodents, and birds. Actual predation of squirrels against healthy adult birds seems to be quite rare, as explained below.

The following information is from: Callahan, J.R.. 1993. Squirrels as Predators. Great Basin Naturalist 53(2):137-144.

In the article cited above the author documented several incidents of squirrels eating birds. But he didn't count eating eggs and baby nestlings as predation. There are also other examples of squirrels eating birds that weren't strictly "predation."

Eggs and nestlings


Squirrels, including chipmunks, frequently eat bird eggs and chicks in the nest. This is one reason you may not want squirrels in your yard. Squirrels can keep birds from nesting successfully in your yard.

Carrion


Squirrels will opportunistically eat dead birds, including road kill or other birds found dead. No one knows whether the squirrels are after calories (fat), protein (meat), or calcium (bones).

Window strikes


One place where squirrels encounter dead or injured birds is below home windows. Both birds and squirrels are attracted to backyard bird feeders. Sometimes birds fly into windows and are injured or killed. These are then scavenged and eaten by squirrels.

One way to have fewer bird window strikes is to move the feeder farther away than 10 feet from the window. Alternatively, feeders closer than 3 feet from a window do not have as many fatal window strikes, either. Birds see the window when they are closer and aren't flying so fast they can't avoid it.

What kind of squirrels eat birds?


Callahan made a table of squirrel predation. Some of the results follow. He did not count eggs, nestlings, or carrion as predation, only attacks on healthy adult birds.

Squirrels in the tropics apparently do not eat meat of any kind.

Tree squirrels are infrequent bird predators. Reports of predation upon healthy adult birds is very rare. Callahan did observe a gray squirrel attack an adult mountain quail. The attack was eventually unsuccessful. Squirrels were noted to frequently stalk birds, but not follow through with an attack. Gray squirrels frequently eat bird eggs and nestlings. Fox squirrels have eaten blue jays, mourning doves, and other birds. A pine squirrel also ate a mourning dove.

Ground squirrels eat meat as a major portion of their diet. Most of it is lizards and small mammals, though. They have also been noted to eat juncos, sparrows, warblers, and ducks.

Flying squirrels eat eggs, nestlings, and carrion, but evidently do not prey upon healthy adult animals or birds.

Chipmunks do eat eggs and nestling birds. Sparrows, swallows, and a starling have been eaten by chipmunks.

What is the best way to repel squirrels?


Squirrels are smart and persistent. They love the same sorts of foods as birds. They can jump great distances. They can climb like no other animal. They can chew through anything not made of metal. They are bigger than the birds at your feeder. There aren't any bird feeders that are absolutely squirrel-proof. But here are some things you can do to deter squirrels and keep them from scaring away all the birds from the feeder or eating all the bird seed.

Squirrels can jump 10 feet horizontally. Place any bird feeders at least 10 feet away from trees, roofs, or other structures (including other bird feeders) that squirrels can climb up and jump across.

Squirrels can jump up 4 feet high. If you place squirrel baffles (cone or spring-loaded) on feeder poles, make sure that they are at least 5 feet up off the ground. That way the squirrels don't just jump over them.

Squirrels have big heads. There are special squirrel-proof bird feeders enclosed in cages that smaller birds can get through, but squirrels can't get in. These cages also have the added benefit of preventing larger birds (crows, blackbirds, jays, and starlings) from getting in.

Squirrels are much heavier than birds. There are bird feeders with weight-sensitive perches that close the doors to the feeder ports when the heavy squirrel gets on the feeder.

Squirrels are mammals and sensitive to spicy peppers in their food. Some bird seed manufactures add cayenne pepper (or chili pepper) to their bird foods. The active ingredient in peppers that is spicy to mammal mouth linings is capsaicin. Birds aren't sensitive to that chemical and aren't harmed. There is some debate about using such a method (mostly on if it is cruel to the squirrels), but using peppers in birdseed is not always effective.

There is another effective way to keep squirrels from the bird feeders....

How do you feed birds without attracting squirrels?


Squirrels especially like sunflower seeds and peanuts. These are common ingredients in cheap mixed bird seed. There are a couple of common bird seeds that squirrels generally don't like (or don't like as much). The solution? Fill bird feeders with single food items that squirrels don't like!

Niger seed. This seed, also known as "thistle seed" (it's not thistle) is the favorite of goldfinches and siskins, but squirrels don't eat it. Place this seed in a special finch feeder or thistle sock.

White proso millet. This is a small seed that is a favorite of ground feeding birds. Sparrows, juncos and others generally like to eat these seeds either on the ground or in low platform feeders.

Safflower seeds. This is a seed that cardinals, chickadees, and titmouses will eat. It's not their favorite; they'd rather have black oil sunflower seeds. But it's not a favorite of squirrels either. Squirrels will eat it if there's nothing better, but perhaps not take over the feeder.

Then, put your black oil sunflower seed for finches in a tube feeder on a squirrel-resistant pole. Keep your foods separated. Don't offer mixed seeds.

What to feed squirrels in the backyard


If you can't beat them, join them! One way to keep squirrels off the bird feeders is to provide food for the squirrels on low ground feeders just for them.

A tray of sunflower seeds, peanuts in the shell, or corn on the cob will keep the squirrels away from the bird feeders. At least, temporarily. There is always the risk that more and more squirrels will come to your yard, though. Also, having food out at night will eventually bring pests such as skunks, raccoons, opossums, and rats.

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I'd love to hear from you. What did you think? Is something missing? What else would you like to see in a future article? Comments are moderated to eliminate spam; thanks for understanding that I may not be able to get back to you right away. --Greg--

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