By Lynette L. Walther
Squirrels just don’t get much respect. Aside from those little wooden chairs that attach to a tree and hold a cob of corn for them to gnaw on, squirrels are pretty much persona non grata in the garden. Squirrels are the butt of jokes, not to mention the root of that term “squirrely,” which fits their personalities to a T.
Perfect example: Squirrel Appreciation Day was Jan. 21, and here we are, days later, giving them their due.
So in the spirit of that honor, we have to hand it to squirrels that if you only have one job in life, it is imperative that you do it well. That’s pretty the accepted norm whether you are a pie-maker, a soldier, teacher, a welder or a spy. Given that assessment, it only stands to reason that when it comes to squirrels, their job of cleaning out the bird feeders is one in which they consistently outperform. You gotta give ’em credit.
But that does not mean you have to hand over that birdseed! Leave it to squirrels to empty the bird feeders, but that’s not the only damage those 1-pound rascals are guilty of. They dig up plants and flowering bulbs, plant unwanted things in our gardens and lawns, decimate vegetable and fruit crops in the summer months, leave holes in the turf and sometimes even chew their way into our homes and take up residence! Yeah sorry, but that’s not the Tooth Fairy rustling around in the attic.
Love them or hate them, we are stuck with squirrels, the gray squirrel in particular. Their larger cousins, fox squirrels, are not often found around homes and prefer stands of longleaf pine which is their major food source. Squirrels are members of the family Sciuridae, a family that includes small- or medium-sized rodents. Squirrels have teeth that never stop growing, so they have to chew almost constantly to keep them in check. That supernatural chewing enables them to gnaw through just about anything — including the woodwork on the outside of your house, and then sometimes the wiring in your attic once they settle in for the season. We’ve heard reports that squirrels have chewed and damaged communication cables outside homes.
They are infamous for planting all manner of seeds — acorns and other things — to store for later. But they are after all squirrels, and these scatterbrained rodents frequently forget where those nuts and seeds were stored — hence those dozens of little holes dug in your yard or flower beds, even containers, in their characteristically squirrelly searches. Thank squirrels for all those little oak trees that sprout in your garden in the spring.
Sometimes I feel as if I have spent my entire life battling squirrels, so it is no coincidence that I consider them one of the masters of gardening mayhem. While predators often move in where there are imbalances in wild animal populations, we cannot always count on them to arrive in time or at all to control excess populations of squirrels. However there are a number of things that we can do to thwart these rascals.
Make your bird feeder squirrel proof, simply and cheaply with a length of chimney pipe or a large plastic nursery pot turned upside down. Install the pipe (or pot) under a tray-type or other feeder mounted on a pole. The squirrels will still climb the pole, but are unable to climb the chimney pipe and will find themselves at a dead end. We’ve used this device for several years now, and no squirrel has been able to gain access to the feeder.
Just be certain to position the pole feeder far enough away from trees or any structure. They will climb on them, and then try to jump on top of the feeder. Ours started out a tad too close to the house, and those rascals climbed onto the roof and jumped from there. Took them several tries as they performed their kamikaze dives off the roof. But it was not long before they are able to judge the trajectory, and hit their mark every time. So we had to move the feeder.
Try a foul-tasting deterrent
- 1-1/2 quarts water
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 chopped onions
- 1 chopped jalapeño
Combine in a saucepan and boil 30 minutes. Allow to cool and then strain. Use a spray bottle to spray areas to repel squirrels., avoiding plant foliage as it may burn it. Apply every few days.
For a dry repellent
Combine equal amounts of cayenne pepper, hot paprika and crushed red peppers. Sprinkle in ornamental beds or mix with bird seed. (Will not harm birds.) Safflower seeds are another option that squirrels don’t like, yet birds do.
Keep a clean yard
Be diligent about cleaning up fallen nuts, acorns and berries. Make the process faster and easier with a handy nut gatherer. Keep trash can lids securely closed as well. If you have a large enough piece of property, a distant feeding station for squirrels could be an option. The location would help to keep them away from planted beds and bird feeders.
Employed predators, both real and imagined
Animal urine can be used to create an illusion of a predator nearby. Be advised that if you attract hawks or owls with perches or other enticements, you will also be inviting them to feast on the birds you are attracting with feeders. Instead go for predator decoys or a large fake snake.
In summer, for fruit or berry producing shrubs, use row covers, netting or chicken wire enclosures. To prevent squirrels from digging up plants or bulbs, bury chicken wire as a deterrent or enclose bulbs in hardware cloth wire “cages.”
Try some herbs
Squirrels are often repelled by plants they find offensive, aromatic herbs like rosemary, lavender, mints or nasturtiums, marigolds or mustard. Sprigs of rosemary inserted around prized plants or in pots can help prevent squirrels from digging them up.
If all else fails
As a last resort, consider catching and releasing, but because squirrels will travel over long distances in search of food, be prepared to relocate any trapped animals at least 10 or more miles away. Note that this practice is prohibited in some areas, and depending on where trapped squirrels are released, they could negatively impact residents or other animal populations in release areas. Encouraging squirrels to relocate themselves by eliminating their food sources or making them unreachable in your landscape is always the best option.
Just remember, getting into and cleaning out your bird feeder is just one of the main jobs of any squirrel, and they are darned good at their work. Maybe with these tips you will be able to outfox your own squirrel nemesis. Good luck!
Lynette L. Walther is the GardenComm Gold medal winner for writing and a five-time recipient of the GardenComm Silver Medal of Achievement, the National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award. She is a member of GardenComm and the National Garden Bureau. Her gardens are on the banks of the St. Johns River.