Rodent raider

The author says that squirrels exhibit remarkable acrobatic and problem-solving skills, which they use to thwart efforts to keep them out of bird feeders.

GHENT, N.Y. — If you love birds, you probably have bird feeders. And if you have bird feeders, you have, in addition to chickadees, nuthatches and blue jays, squirrels. Lots of squirrels. These rodents, while arguably cute, are also ravenous.

The squirrels are always a problem come autumn when I put out my feeders — I figure birds can fend for themselves during the summer — but this year they seem exponentially worse. Indeed, my dog is sitting in our sunroom at this moment, barking at the top of her lungs, eager to get at them.

More about the dog and her haphazard hatred of squirrels momentarily.

My theory about their profusion is that last summer was what is called a “mast year.” That’s a term used to describe a bumper crop of things like acorns. And the more acorns, apparently, the larger and more prosperous the squirrel population. They seem bigger, fatter and even bushier than I remember them.

It’s not unusual to have six squirrels on, under, approaching or departing one of my feeders like jets queuing at pre-pandemic JFK airport on a Friday night. I know from previous experience that there’s no such thing as squirrel-proof feeders, since I have several advertised as such. If you think squirrels are a lower life form, you’ve never tried and failed to thwart one from raiding your feeders. They exhibit something approaching problem-solving genius as well as acrobatic skills that would make Baryshnikov envious. The best you can do, short of shooting them, which I don’t recommend, even though I’m regularly tempted, is briefly to inhibit their ambitions.

For the sake of full disclosure I’ve written on this subject before, and similarly aggrieved readers have sent me all sorts of gleefully sadistic solutions to the squirrel problem. These include spraying sunflower seeds, which I purchase at my local Agway in 40-pound bags, with red pepper spray. Apparently, birds are immune, but squirrels get a culinary experience not quickly forgotten. Also, electrifying the wire from which the feeder hangs and zapping the critters from the comfort of your living room.

I’ve resisted such extreme measures, so far. I greased with petroleum jelly the poles that support a couple of the standing feeders. That appears to have deterred them so far, but I started only yesterday and I have no doubt they’ll eventually discover some workaround. I also treaded an expendable LP through one of the hanging feeder wires to create a makeshift baffle. Where the soundtrack from “Blade Runner” came from, I have no idea.

The problem with the LP solution, apart from the fact that the squirrels eventually learn how to circumvent it — I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but a 9-inch squirrel can seemingly extend his or her body 10 or 15 feet — is that it annoys my wife, who considers large, vinyl discs turning in the breeze unsightly.

I promised to return to our dog. Frankly, our dog Wallie is a huge disappointment. Especially in the arena of squirrel management. In all the years we’ve had her,m Wallie has only managed to catch once squirrel. My wife, unforgivably, forced her to give it back.

Wallie was playing with the ostensibly dead squirrel last winter, tossing it in the air like a rag doll, when my spouse rushed out into the backyard and, brandishing a broom, demanded the pooch back off. Wouldn’t you know it: The squirrel was only playing dead. As soon as Wallie dropped it, the thing scampered up the nearest tree, its death sentence commuted so that it could raid my feeders another day.

I don’t know whether it’s our dog’s breed — a Bracco, a floppy-eared Italian bird dog, said to be a favorite of the Medicis — or inbreeding that’s resulted in her questionable intellectual acumen, or her advancing age, but Wallie often can’t be bothered to give chase, or if she does, will run in the opposite direction from where the squirrels are holding their mixer.

This comes after I lead her to the window and point out the squirrels, mocking her by their presence. If it were I, I’d consider this a direct challenge to my manhood and respond accordingly. Maybe Wallie isn’t so dumb. Maybe she understands something that I refuse to acknowledge: The squirrels have already won. I suppose I should feel grateful they haven’t moved into the house and cracked open a can of beer.

But, I refuse to submit. They’re costing me lots of money. I figure that fully 50 percent of my sunflower seeds find their way into the rodents’ expandable cheeks.

I see no good solution. My daughter, commiserating with my plight, recently sent me a YouTube video starring a former NASA engineer who created an eight-part Ninja squirrel obstacle course in an attempt to preserve his feeders for his birds. His verdict: “I admit in hindsight that I completely underestimated my adversary.”

However, I do take a certain amount of satisfaction that the squirrel population has grown so insufferable that they’re starting to get on each other’s nerves. Turns out, there’s nothing nastier than a squirrel forced to share a food source. It does my heart good to see them chasing each other across the lawn. As soon as they do, the birds, waiting for that moment all morning, rightly reclaim their domain.

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and The New Yorker. He can be reached at ralph@ralphgardner.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.