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101 Cunning Stratagems to Reduce Dramatically the Egregious Misappropriation of Seed from Your Birdfeeder by Squirrels
By Bill Adler Jr.
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2014 Bill Adler, Jr.
All rights reserved.
Misadventures with Squirrels
"I'm getting low on bird food and I don't know what the squirrels will do without my birdfeeder to raid."
— Sandy Rovner, Washington Post
It could happen to anyone. Of that I'm now sure. And it could happen to anyone in the most innocent, innocuous way. Oh, yes, I know — because it happened to me. Once I was like most people — caring, tolerant, even curious about the natural world — but that is a distant part of my past now. I really can't remember what I used to be like — before. I can only hope that by writing this chapter I can warn others before they, too, become obsessed, controlled by a single, overriding hatred of squirrels (at least when they come in proximity to birdfeeders).
My apartment building doesn't allow pets, except for "grandfathered" pets: those that were here before this rule was instituted. (It was my lot to live in the apartment below Dusty, a four-legged, tap-dancing dog who likes to wake his owner by practicing his Fred Astaire routine at 6 AM.) I never actually wanted a cat or a dog, figuring that owning one would be a reasonably large hassle for an apartment dweller, but as soon as I learned of this no-pets rule, I decided I needed one.
When I visited a friend's apartment and saw a birdfeeder attached to her window, surrounded by all sorts of colorful and (to my eye) exotic birds, I knew that's what I had to have. A feeder would be perfect — I would not have just one pet, but dozens. I wouldn't have to walk them, change their litter box, or vacuum my clothing every morning. Most importantly, I could have these pets and not get evicted. My friend gave me her Duncraft bird catalog, and through the miracles of modern credit, my feeder arrived in less than a week.
I opened the box quickly, followed the instructions carefully (soak the two suction cups in warm water for three minutes, then rub them with your finger to increase their sticking power), added a quart of Safeway wild bird food mix from the ten-pound supply I had already purchased in anticipation, slapped the feeder on the window, and waited. It was five in the afternoon in February. I kept waiting for my birds to arrive.
Nobody told me that birds don't come to feeders after dark.
But the next day was amazing. My feeder brought a sunset-red cardinal, two doves, a couple of finches, a chickadee, a tufted titmouse, a warbler, a junco, and a white-breasted nuthatch. (I know this because I also bought the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds.) I'd never seen anything like this before — beautiful birds with beautiful songs coming to my window every handful of seconds. I'd just sit at my desk and look at them, or sometimes I'd walk over to the window for a closer view. A few birds like the tufted titmouse and the chickadee didn't mind my standing so close to them; others would fly back to the nearby tree and wait for my departure. It didn't bother me that some of these birds wouldn't let me come close; after all, they provided so much enjoyment and required so little in return — just sunflower seeds. On the rare occasion when a minute or two passed without a bird stopping by, I'd become terribly disappointed.
One afternoon something happened that changed my world forever. It inspired a quest that has been driving me for years; the same quest that motivates 55 million other Americans. That February afternoon, I returned from an errand, opened my door and saw a squirrel in my feeder. My bird-feeder! The whole squirrel — tail and everything — was inside the rectangular lucite compartment attached to my window with suction cups.
Nothing has been the same since.
For the rest of the afternoon I stood guard over the feeder, protecting my birds from this gray rodent. Every time it approached, I flailed my arms, banged on the window — and the squirrel ran away. Unfortunately, it didn't take too many hours before the squirrel learned that the window was solid, and that despite my gestures and noise, I remained safely inside.
The squirrel, being a city creature and all, decided that it could stand the noise if it could eat. Sort of like dining at an outdoor café along a major street.
So I urgently developed a new strategy: I opened the window and yelled at the squirrel, who, recognizing the implications of an open window, bolted away. He returned; I opened the window. Now mind you, this was still winter, so I wasn't too crazy about opening my window every fifteen minutes or so to shake my fist at the squirrel, but what choice did I have? Anyway, the technique worked. This squirrel, which somehow managed to climb up two flights to my apartment, was defeated. I was victorious.
I was wrong.
The next morning it was back. Not only was it back, but the squirrel brought a friend. Still worse, my birds weren't around, apparently figuring that they ought to yield right-of-way to the gray animal with claws. But a squirrel was only a dumb animal, I thought, and it would only take a modicum of ingenuity and effort to thwart the squirrel's invasion. So I moved the feeder to a higher pane on my window, a couple of feet above the air conditioner. Sanguine over my success, I left the apartment for lunch.
When I returned, I discovered that I wasn't the only one who had been dining. Leaping a half dozen more inches from the air conditioner had posed no problem for the squirrel; in fact, he appeared to enjoy this spot of pre-lunch exercise.
All right, I thought, I'll let the squirrel get into the feeder, but for one purpose only: to watch how and from exactly what spot on the air conditioner he leaps. If I could learn the squirrel's technique, I knew that I could develop a counter to it.
This was the beginning of war.
In the meantime, I wasn't going to sit back and do nothing; my birds were counting on me. A trip to the hardware store would produce some useful ideas, I thought. I was right. At the store I found an item that I was certain would mean the squirrel's downfall, something that, despite the squirrel's long lineage extending back through generations of bird-feeder raiders, he wouldn't be able to overcome.
Before I tell you what that item was, I need to mention one other aspect of the squirrel's behavior. I noticed early on that Mr. Squirrel was adept at climbing brick walls. Very adept. In fact, it was the brick wall that the squirrel needed in order to invade my feeder. The wall was its attack route: a kind of Normandy beach of the squirrel world. Obviously, I couldn't remove the brick wall, but I could do something even better, thanks to the miracle product I'd found: spray-can Teflon.
With the glee of a sixteen-year-old on prom night, I coated the walls around and below the air conditioner with a visible film of Teflon. Although I had to lean out the window precariously to reach every spot, it was worth the risk.
And I wasn't disappointed. The first squirrel that leapt onto the Teflon-coated brick was as surprised as I was overjoyed. The moment his claws caught the Teflon-coated surface he scrambled furiously to keep hold, his little legs moving rapidly in circles, as if he were being chased by a cat. It was a fun, funny, fantastic sight: here was Mr. Squirrel, so certain that he could scale any surface (except glass, but he already knew about that), and now ordinary brick was refusing to cooperate. The squirrel's world turned topsy-turvy; the squirrel had no basis on which to compare or comprehend this new reality created by Teflon. From this moment on, there would be no rules that Mr. Squirrel could depend on.
Finally, Teflon had a valuable application.
As you can tell, that wasn't the end of the war between me and the squirrels. Teflon was great while it lasted, but unfortunately spray Teflon has one negative property: it comes off brick when it rains. Another alternative was brewing in my mind — spraying the squirrel with Teflon — but I wasn't ready for anything like that. Yet.
"Okay. I can live with a temporary setback," I said to myself. "I have more tricks up my sleeve. If only I could think of them."
Frequently, the best inventions stem not from trips to the hardware store, nor are they Rube Goldberg contraptions that are the product of weeks of imagining. Rather, they result from making use of what's around. The common, uncomplicated things. And that's precisely what I did.
Anyone who works in his apartment can tell you that there's a grave danger lurking for those who spend the day in this environment: the refrigerator. The refrigerator is the ultimate seductress for the work-at-home crowd; it is the force that moves waist size to increase faster than age. Not wanting to impersonate the individual whose girth resembles that of the golden arches at McDonald's, I opted to stock my fridge with Perrier water, a nice, non-caloric alternative to sweet drinks. But all those empty bottles! What a pain to throw away!
Yes, indeed, all those empty bottles provided the means to thwart Mr. Squirrel's birdfeeder rampages. You see, in order to jump into the feeder on the window, the squirrel had to leap from the top of my air conditioner. And he couldn't jump from just anywhere on the air conditioner: the angle had to be just right for him to get into the feeder. I'm a two-liter-a-day Perrier drinker; it took only a couple of days for me to cover the squirrel's launch sites.
I could relax again. My relaxation lasted exactly twenty-four hours.
The squirrel found new launch sites.
So I found new places to put Perrier bottles.
And then the squirrel started knocking the Perrier bottles down. I filled them with tap water to make them too heavy to knock down. Then the squirrel started bowling: he discovered that if you could knock down one Perrier bottle you could cause most of them to fall. That apparently was not only easier from the squirrel's perspective, but more enjoyable as well. My countermove was to encircle the bottles with copper bell wire to create a single Perrier superstructure that was too heavy for the squirrel to knock over.
Victory at last!
Wrong again. The squirrel decided to ignore the Perrier apparatus altogether and simply hoist himself up to the feeder by grabbing onto the wooden window frame and pulling himself upward as if doing a chin-up. Mr. Squirrel even found that he could use the Perrier bottles as a support to balance his back legs against as he lifted himself into the feeder.
My riposte was to spray the window frame with Teflon, even though I knew it would only last until the next rain. Alas, I also sprayed the window with Teflon, which made it difficult to see through.
Maybe I'm going about this all wrong, I figured. Perhaps the solution lies not in preventing access to the feeder, but in the type of feeder I have. Looking at the feeder, with its wide entry area and well-defined edges — great for holding on to — I understood that I'd been making things too easy for Mr. Squirrel. It was time to play hardball.
I bought a new feeder — a chalet-style apparatus made of pine, with Plexiglas windows along the sides. The seed was dispensed from a gap between the Plexiglas sides and wooden base of the feeder. In order to eat the feed, a bird (hopefully, only a bird) had to reach that narrow opening. By putting the feeder on top of the Perrier bottles there would be no way for the squirrel to get its furry little face into that opening; the space was simply too high and far away.
Again, I was wrong. I learned something new about squirrels' capabilities: they can, and will, eat through anything to get to food. In a few days the squirrel had eaten through the feeder to create a reasonably sized hole through which he could munch to his stomach's content.
Enough! It had to be possible for a human to outwit a squirrel! Feeding birds was important, certainly; being surrounded by cardinals and titmice all day long is rather pleasant. "No squirrel is going to stand in my way," I growled through gritted teeth. This was becoming more than a matter of being close to birds. Pride and intelligence were involved and I wasn't about to let a mere rodent get the better of me.
It's at this point in the story about my war with the squirrels that I'd like to digress. My squirrel war was causing personal problems. Frequently while talking on the telephone, I would shout in the squirrel's direction, "Get out of here!" followed by certain epithets. My friends, of course, thought it rather rude that I would hurl insults at them without provocation. When I told them about the squirrel, it increased their concern for my mental health. So be it — I was not going to succumb to the squirrel's strategy.
I bought yet another feeder — a clear Swiss chalet-style feeder that attaches with suction cups to the window and has a wide opening in front. Buying new feeders was to be a recurring phenomenon and part of the squirrel's strategy, I was certain. (If he couldn't win by being more patient and persistent than me, he was going to make me very, very poor. Of course, he probably didn't realize that if I could no longer afford new feeders, I couldn't afford more feed.) Attaching a feeder directly to the window was a return to the old, unsuccessful geometry, I knew, but the height of the feeder on the windowpane was an advantage and I intended to take that advantage. This feeder had an opening in the front and suction cups on the back. The opening of this feeder was arranged so that the squirrel couldn't leap directly in. But I knew that if I simply attached the feeder to the window, the squirrel would be able to leap on top of it and crawl inside. The Swiss chalet had a very steep roof, and it was this characteristic that I intended to exploit. Because of its steepness and Lucite construction, the squirrel would have a difficult time securing himself to the top so as not to fall. (I had discovered by this time that squirrels aren't afraid of heights, falling, losing their balance, or anything like that at all; but they can fall.) When on the chalet, the squirrel would have to devote some of his claws to supporting himself while he climbed over the top into the feeder, which was the only way to the food. Knowledge is the most powerful tool of the human species. By pressing this knowledge to its outer limits I was certain I could win. Carefully I drilled holes spaced about one-quarter of an inch apart in the feeder's roof, near the front edge. I then placed three-inch nails, pointing upward, in these holes, creating a barrier to prevent the squirrel from leaning over the edge of the roof and climbing into the feeder from the top. I also placed a couple of upward-pointing nails on the feeder to make it more difficult for the squirrel to meander around the top. These nails were positioned more or less in the center of the upside down V-shaped rooftop. The feeder looked intimidating, kind of medieval, and frightful. Sometimes I could see the sun reflecting off the nails' points, and suddenly I felt as if my feeder-fortress had a consciousness — it knew its purpose. In a strange way, it was an evil creation designed to inflict good.
And here's what happened. First, the squirrel used the nails as handholds by wrapping one claw around a nail. Second, by some ability I am at a loss to describe, Mr. Squirrel simply passed through my wall of nails as if they weren't there. Because the nails were pointing up along a triangular surface, geometry forced the space between the nails to get larger the farther the nail was from the surface of the feeder. Yet somehow the squirrel lifted himself into the air and pushed through the open part. I countered by weaving copper wire between the nails to fill that space; it looked like a fence. Now the squirrel had to scale the fence, and flip upside down to get inside the feeder. He did.
It was time for heavy artillery. I bought a squirt gun and blasted the squirrel every time he came near the feeder. Naturally, this meant that I didn't get much work accomplished, but so what? War requires sacrifice. Although Mr. Squirrel wasn't too crazy about me, after a while he didn't seem to care about being sprayed with water. It didn't take long for the squirrel to figure out that what I was squirting him with was the same stuff that falls from the sky. So I escalated and bought a dart gun — the kind with the red rubber tips so I wouldn't actually harm the squirrel. (While bird feeders may hate squirrels, we are, deep down, nature lovers.) And I got pretty good — I could hit a moving squirrel at twenty feet. My objective with the dart gun was to annoy the squirrel enough so that he'd move elsewhere — to somebody else's feeder. While I did annoy him (though when the dart hit the squirrel at its maximum range the impact was so soft that the squirrel just shook itself and went back to whatever he was doing), the squirrel developed a countertactic: eat while I wasn't watching. He knew that by the time I grabbed my gun, reached the window and opened the screen, he could be well out of range. In response I would sometimes lie in wait with dart gun in In response I would sometimes lie in wait with dart gun in hand — ambush style — beneath my window and spring to fire while the squirrel wasn't looking. Ultimately, however, I tired of this faster than the squirrel did.
Excerpted from Outwitting Squirrels by Bill Adler Jr.. Copyright © 2014 Bill Adler, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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