Winter is bird-feeding season, the time when the flowerless yard is brightened by macho birds that don't need to fly south for survival. This human charity is good for the birds...
Winter is bird-feeding season, the time when the flowerless yard is brightened by macho birds that don’t need to fly south for survival.
This human charity is good for the birds, but even better for squirrels in need of a square meal. A rodent can survive on 50-cent tulip bulbs for only so long.
Some people, of course, actually like squirrels and purchase tiny, squirrel-sized picnic tables or Adirondack chairs with holders for corn cobs. Go figure.
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But for those who want to feed birds, not squirrels, technology is beginning to catch up with the task of building a better bird feeder. There are several on the market now that are much more effective than previous efforts, said Debi Klein, whose Olney, Md., store, the Backyard Naturalist, has been selling bird-feeding supplies for 15 years.
She and other store owners tend to roll their eyes when a bird-feeder sales rep pitches a new model as squirrel-proof. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has issued approximately 100 patents for squirrel-proof bird feeders since 1928. Most of them have proved inadequate against a 20-ounce rodent that can jump six feet vertically and 10 feet sideways, and has better acrobatic skills than trapeze artists.
True squirrel-proofing “is the holy grail of bird feeders,” said Paul Coti, inventor of the Squirrel Buster Plus (www.bromebirdcare.com), which Klein has tested and rates as one of the best. It is a tubular feeder with a circular perch at its base. When a squirrel alights, its weight causes the perch to sink, closing access to the feeding portals. For a day or two, Coti says, the squirrels sit there frustrated and annoyed but then leave, deciding the contraption is for the birds.
The most amusing new-generation feeder, launched in 2000, is made by a Foster, R.I., company named Droll Yankees. Its perch is motorized and starts to spin when a squirrel uses it. The rodent goes flying. “Very humane and somewhat entertaining,” said Jennifer Masiello, the company’s sales manager. The battery requires recharging every two to three months. For the past two years, the company’s line of squirrel-tipping feeders has been extended to models with weight-activated, collapsible perches or trays, namely the Tipper, Whipper and Dipper (www.drollyankees.com).
Squirrels repel birds, eat all their food and often do great damage to feeders if only to satisfy their need to gnaw.
“It has always been a problem,” said Masiello, “It’s a much more solvable problem now with new technology.” But at a price. Coti’s feeder retails for $64.99. The squirrel-proof line from Droll Yankees starts at $79.99 for the Dipper and goes to $119 for the motorized Flipper.
An alternative is to use conventional tube feeders or wooden hopper feeders with plastic baffles above and, if pole-mounted, steel ones from below. But even then you should expect to spend around $65 to create a feeding station that squirrels will be hard pressed to use, said Klein.
Some manufacturers make caged feeders to exclude squirrels. Klein said some of these may not prevent long-armed squirrels from reaching the seed, and larger, desirable birds won’t use them.
“All feeders are not created equal,” said Klein.
As feeders have become better at barring squirrels, the enemy has adapted, too. Squirrels may seem clownish, but they have a brain. “They are ingenious, acrobatic and persistent,” said Matthew Mathias, assistant manager of the bird sanctuary shop at the Audubon Naturalist Society.
As he was demonstrating various feeders last week, Lisa Wilcox Deyo of Bethesda, Md., was eyeing a replacement for her supposed squirrel-proof feeder that flunked. It uses a pivoting tray to lock out the seed, activated by weight. For a while it worked, until one squirrel used the roof for a toehold and suspended itself in a way that allowed its mouth to reach the seed without activating the locking tray. “Several months later there were about six of them, and it seemed they had all learned how to do it,” she said.
Mathias said he hears lots of these stories, including one about a squirrel that outwitted the indomitable, motorized Flipper. “He put his butt inside the ring and kept it from spinning around,” he said. “Just absorbed the pain, I guess.”
One approach to keeping squirrels away from feeders was to use safflower seed instead of sunflowers and peanuts. “When we started using safflower, we found 95 percent of them hated it,” said Klein. “Now we are finding probably 25 percent of them have adapted to it.” Squirrels are also adapting to suet cakes laced with hot peppers.
She displays another device in which thin slices of suet — favored by woodpeckers — are between two chunks of synthetic bark. The Suet Sandwich (www.avianaquatics.com, click on “Woodpeckers & Hummingbirds”) sells for approximately $35 and allows the long-tongued woodpeckers access to the beef fat, but not the squirrels. For now.