A report from the front lines of the squirrel birdseed wars

Not all bird-lovers are squirrel-haters, but many people who put out birdseed hate to see it devoured by hungry squirrels. Here’s what it takes to squirrel-proof your feeder. (John Kelly and Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Squirrels do not worry whether they forgot to turn the iron off. Squirrels do not have irons.

Squirrels are not troubled by mortgages. They do not care about North Korea, college applications or remembering to DVR “Game of Thrones.”

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Squirrels care about only two things: eating and making baby squirrels. They don’t involve humans in the second thing, but all too often, humans are inconvenienced by the first. That is because squirrels want your birdseed.

And because they aren’t distracted by the workaday irritants that bedevil humans, squirrels have nothing better to do than spend hours figuring out how to get it.

It is an age-old war, fought on battlefields all over our area. To hear about the latest tactics, I visited an armory: the Backyard Naturalist in Olney, a shop catering to bird lovers.

Debi Klein, owner of the Backyard Naturalist in Olney, Md., helps bird-lovers defeat squirrels, though she also sells squirrel-feeding supplies. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

Owner Debi Klein said it isn’t that her customers hate squirrels — well, most don’t — or that they begrudge the squirrels the occasional sunflower seed. It’s that squirrels want it all. They do not understand moderation.

There are two ways to cut down on seed pilferage. You either restrict access to the feeder or you use a feeder that shuts off access to the seed. To put it another way: baffles or busters.

When it comes to climbing, squirrels are regular Tenzing Norgays. If your feeder is mounted on a pole, they will climb up it. If it dangles from a line, they will climb down it. That’s where the baffle comes in. It’s a metal disc or canister that goes on the pole or line.

To safeguard against squirrels launching themselves directly at the feeder, it should be in the center of a circle with a radius of at least eight feet, 10 if you want to be on the safe side. Within this radius there must be no feature from which a squirrel may jump.

If you don’t want to use a baffl,e you have to get one of the “squirrel-proof” feeders. These work on a simple principle: Squirrels are heavier than backyard birds.

Some feeders have metal perches that collapse under a squirrels’ weight then snap back once the furry interloper has been dropped. Some have a ring for birds to perch on. When a squirrel dangles, a mechanism slams the feeding ports shut.

The Yankee Flipper adds a bit of comedy to the equation: There’s a motor inside the feeder that spins the perch ring when a squirrel grabs on, flinging the squirrel into low-Earth orbit.

The first to capi­tal­ize on using a squirrel’s weight against it was the Absolute Squirrel-Proof Feeder, introduced about 30 years ago. It looks a bit like a tiny green metal shed. Debi said that some squirrels have learned how to defeat it, taking advantage of a design change — windows that allow owners to see the seed levels — to grab a toehold.

Like a well-trained army, squirrels seem able to adjust their tactics. When I first started feeding birds 20 years ago, people said to use safflower seeds rather than sunflower seeds. Supposedly squirrels don’t like the taste.

Well, that’s changed. Debi said that once upon a time, only 5 percent of the squirrels she encountered would eat safflower. Now that’s up to 50 percent. They’re like Americans getting an appetite for some exotic foreign food.

Of course, if you can’t beat them, you might as well feed them. And so Debi sells squirrel food — peanuts, corncobs, compressed corn cylinders — and squirrel feeders. There are little picnic tables and even little metal Adirondack chairs with little vertical spikes to hold dried corncobs upright.

Why Adirondack chairs?

“It’s for the hip squirrel,” Debi said. “It’s fun.”

And so is feeding the squirrels.

“It feels very good just to look at them,” said Iris Peters of North Kensington, who was at Backyard Naturalist last week stocking up on supplies for squirrels. Iris was planning a trip to New York, and her neighbor Barbara Morris had agreed to feed the critters in her absence. “We live in the city, but they’re our neighbors,” Barbara said of the squirrels.

Just don’t forget what makes good neighbors: good fences.

Get your squirrel on

Show the world you love squirrels. Simply include #squirrelweek in your tweets, Instagrams and YouTube videos and they may show up on The Grid, which this week will feature a regularly updated compendium of squirreliana. To experience it, go to wapo.st/squirrelweek.

Or perhaps you think squirrels are just rats with bushy tails? Then finish this sentence on Twitter: “I hate squirrels because . . .

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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