Among those who are irritated by Eastern gray squirrels are many people who maintain bird feeders. They are less than enthusiastic about the squirrels making off with a large share of what they set out. "Big-tailed rats," one friend calls them. That's a stretch, of course. Although both squirrels and rats are rodents, they belong to different scientific families.
This animosity usually leads to a battle of wits, with the squirrel more often than not winning out. My wife and I are among those who fought this good fight. Here is our story.
It began some years ago when I designed and made a large sunflower seed feeder that I thought would attract birds but not squirrels. Its glass-sided hopper was filled through a hinged roof. Only a few seeds dribbled out onto the inch-wide feeding shelf, just enough for a few chickadees and nuthatches. A squirrel would have to hang onto a narrow ledge to get any of those seeds. I mounted the feeder on a 5-foot pole.
The next morning I rushed to the window to see if I had attracted anything. I had: No birds, but a gray squirrel lay on its back in the hopper gorging itself, its tail stretching out over the glass. When I opened the window and yelled unquotable words, the miserable beast leapt out of the hopper, sending seeds flying in all directions.
I could fix that. I attached a 20-foot rope to the top of the feeder and hung it from a high branch of a large ash tree. I had to climb up with an extension ladder to attach the rope so that the feeder was now hanging about 8 feet above the ground. To fill it I had to use a stepladder.
Next morning, same result: a happily engorged squirrel, an apoplectic host. To reach the feeder the squirrel must have jumped at least a dozen feet from the nearest limb.
That too could be fixed. I took down the feeder, removed the roof and drove large nails through it from the inside. When I replaced the roof, the feeder looked like a porcupine with its quills raised in defense. Back up it went on the end of its rope.
Then I began to get soft-hearted. I had visions of coming out the next morning to find the poor mammal impaled on this inside-out iron maiden. I had to steel myself.
You guessed it. The next morning, same result. The squirrel had somehow evaded those nails and was again in the hopper, happily stuffing itself with sunflower seeds.
That was the end of that feeder. Its twisted wood and broken glass went out with that week's garbage.
Enter my wife.
Never mind these homemade efforts, she told me. I'll see what I can find.
And find it she did. She must have paid $100 for the feeder she brought home. It was three long plastic tubes surrounded by a column of metal fencing. All it needed was searchlights to serve as a model for the Attica Correctional Facility.
I could see the idea, though. Small birds could easily reach through the fence to the tiny holes in the tubes to extract food. Squirrels would have much more difficulty.
There was one problem, however. This kind of feeder wouldn't take the large sunflower seeds. It required even more expensive Niger seeds. I had to give away a half ashcan-full of sunflower seeds and purchase this replacement.
Out went the feeder on the end of that rope. And it worked. After a few days chickadees, then goldfinches and finally that year even a few redpolls came to the feeder. So too did several squirrels, but they were frustrated by the metal barrier.
We had a great deal of pleasure from that expensive feeder, but seemingly all good things do come to an end.
One morning I found my distressed wife looking out at the feeder. An acrobatic squirrel had somehow gotten in through the bottom of the protective wire and chewed through the plastic tubes, allowing all of their seeds to fall to the ground.
We no longer feed birds at our house.