Wild Ideas: The squirrel wars

Let’s face it, squirrels are cocky little so-and-sos.

In the suburbs, where dogs are leashed and hunting is generally forbidden, these rodents have taunted me and my dog on sidewalks, chewed holes in doors and invaded my attic. However, nothing brings humans closer to all-out warfare against squirrels than when these rodents plunder bird feeders. Attempts to outwit them can turn otherwise sane, peaceful, wildlife-loving people into irrational, obsessive and even ruthless adversaries.

A gray squirrel lounges in Lafayette Park, in  Washington, D.C., possibly taking a break from a long day of raiding bird feeders. Photo by Sebastian Wallroth via Wikimedia.
A gray squirrel lounges in Lafayette Park, in Washington, D.C., possibly taking a break from a long day of raiding bird feeders. Photo by Sebastian Wallroth via Wikimedia.

People feed birds primarily to help and observe them. Squirrels not only interfere with both but in the process drive people to distraction for two other reasons: economics (bird feed is not cheap) and ego (how can a mere rodent outwit me?).

When I lived in Reston, bird-feeding neighbors’ responses to marauding squirrels ran the gamut from providing feeders designed specifically for them – including a tiny bench and table, for gracious dining – to fiercely mounting an array of strategies to thwart them. People in the latter camp can find solace in “Outwitting Squirrels,” by Bill Adler, Jr.

In the book, Adler humorously details his obsession with outwitting an animal that, as he puts it, has “a brain as small as a walnut.” As the subtitle states, the book offers “101 Cunning Stratagems to Reduce Dramatically the Egregious Misappropriation of Seed from Your Birdfeeder by Squirrels.” Considering that Adler spent an inordinate amount of time developing so many strategies to thwart a rodent’s ingenuity, I have to wonder which species’ brain is really at issue here.

The book also includes a bit of squirrel biology, focusing on gray squirrels, the main daytime feeder-raiders here in Virginia. Describing them as “land sharks, living eating machines,” Adler points out that gray squirrels spend only about two percent of their waking life reproducing, with the rest devoted almost exclusively to eating. Adler also rates commercial feeders by their “squirrelproofness” and includes tips on attracting specific bird species, dealing with marauding cats and other related bird-feeding issues. Admitting that “there are an increasing number of individuals who view all of this baffle-buying, arm-flailing, water-pistol-firing, and general antisquirrel hysteria as foolish,” Adler even has a chapter titled “What to Do If You Think Squirrels Are Cute.”

While living in the suburbs, I had a friend who got so furious at squirrels for continually digging up her flower bulbs that I thought she’d have a stroke. Deciding she needed an intervention, I started giving her tacky, thrift-store squirrel artifacts – squirrel-shaped toys and hats, and squirrels artistically rendered in shells, yarn, ceramics and oil. I also gave her Adler’s book.

After trying some of Adler’s strategies and perhaps realizing, after all the squirrel-related gifts, that she did indeed have a problem, my friend ultimately ended up in the squirrels-are-cute camp. Whether this was a real change of heart, capitulation or Stockholm syndrome, the upshot was that she put out a feeder for squirrels, albeit with a design that undercut the new detente: The feeder consisted of a spinning wheel to which ears of corn are attached. When a squirrel jumped on the feeder, the wheel would spin before the weight of the squirrel finally brought it to a stop. A bit sadistic, yes, but I have to admit it was hard not to laugh at a spinning squirrel.

I like squirrels – maybe because of their open defiance and ingenuity. And out here in the land of hunters, unleashed dogs and myriad wild predators, squirrels tend to show more respect, or perhaps food is just more abundant in our forests.

For whatever reason, squirrels in Rappahannock never bothered my feeders – until after a recent snowstorm. Suddenly five squirrels were taking turns raiding the feeder I put out to help the birds while snow covered the ground. I hung this cheap wooden feeder that was decidedly not squirrel-proof from the eaves of my roof, only a few feet up from my deck railing. Although at an angle to it the railing, it was still no great challenge for the squirrels to reach.

Soon I understood Adler’s descent into squirrel-obsessed madness, as I frantically thumped on the window to drive off the marauders. They quickly became inured to that, so I escalated my efforts to running out and screaming at them every few minutes. I finally enlisted my ancient dog in a pincer strategy, releasing her quietly out the door on the other side of the house. As she went into full attack mode – a limping rush accompanied by fierce barking – I raced out onto the deck and yelled. This gave me about five more minutes of peace before the squirrels returned. When the snow finally melted, it was a relief to take the feeder down.

Although “Outwitting Squirrels” does have a lot of good information and is fun to read, it’s good to keep in mind that its author is a city dweller living in Washington, D.C. He has little experience with nature, as he readily admits. He explains that he turned to feeding wild birds after his desire to have a pet was thwarted by the no-pets policy of his apartment building. His lack of knowledge about local ecology is apparent in his including nonnative starlings and house finches in his tips on how to attract birds to feeders – a no-no for wildlife conservationists, since these two species compete with our native birds.

Adler also does not address an issue with which we country dwellers are all too familiar: bears, which will not just empty feeders but destroy them. Raccoons can be an issue, too. The only way to avoid conflict with both is to not put feeders out or bring them in at night.

Adler does ultimately show a grudging respect for squirrels’ tenacity, acrobatic prowess and yes, ingenuity. He also offers hope to those obsessed with trying to outwit them: “We are smarter and stronger than squirrels. We can win against squirrels. And along the way, we’re going to have plenty of fun.”

Somewhere I hear a squirrel laughing maniacally.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 341 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”

1 Comment

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