Man versus Squirrel: The epic battles

By Jamie Morris

A squirrel on a large bin of "squirrel-proof" bird feeder parts. Photo: Jamie Morris.

Any gardener or homeowner with an attic or an interest in feeding birds will tell you it’s a daunting instance of Man vs. Nature.

An unequal contest, really. On one side, you have a creature capable of scrambling both up and down vertical surfaces (its back feet can rotate 180 degrees), tight-roping across clotheslines or fences and sliding headfirst down wires, a creature that can launch into the air, cling tenaciously, and use its dexterous claws and sharp teeth to have its way.

Above all, you have a highly-motivated creature with a single-minded determination to sniff out, seize and literally squirrel away food, and a will to squeeze its way into cozy nesting spots.

On the other side. . .   us, playing defense.

Fortunately, what we have is the ability to draw on one another’s expertise and design a plan to defeat what are, after all, just bushy-tailed rodents with walnut-sized brains.

Here, then, is advice from three experts for three problems.

Tulip Bulb Theft

The expert:   Horticulturist Roger Hill, who over the past 44 years as owner and manager of Hill’s Florists and Greenhouses has fielded countless questions on how to deter squirrels.

Roger’s  advice:  

In the fall, squirrels have lots of food, so they’re caching the bulbs..  (You may discover you’ve paid good money and in the spring your bulbs are sprouting in a neighbour’s garden!)

Squirrels  don’t dig indiscriminately. They detect the volatile compounds released by the bulbs. The warmer the weather, the stronger those smells.  

The best solution, then, is to wait until the cold weather. My advice is to buy your tulips now, while the selection is best, store them temporarily in a cool, dry, airy, squirrel-proof spot, prepare your site, then plant on November 1st. By then it’s cold, leaves on the ground hamper the squirrel’s sensitive sense of smell, and the bulbs still have time to develop roots.

You’ll hear lots of other suggestions, but all of them are problematic. Sprinkling chili pepper or blood meal (dried blood from an abattoir available as a nitrogen-rich fertilizer)  is a deterrent, but the first rain washes those powders away. Barberry and juniper branches are something of a barrier but prickly to work with. Chicken wire is a curse when you try to remove it in the spring.

So, timing is your best bet.  You could also plant daffodils–they’re of less interest to squirrels. Or you could plant “minor” bulbs such as snowdrops and scillas, and put the squirrels to work distributing them (“naturalizing”).

Squirrels in the Attic

The expert:  Dave Thorne, owner  of Dave’s Pest Control, who estimates 15% of his business over the past 11 years has been squirrel-related.

Dave’s  advice:  

As nights cool, squirrels are looking for warm spots to overwinter.  In the spring, they’re nesting. Older homes can be particularly vulnerable.  If there’s an opening in soffits or fascias they will chew their way in. They can also enter through vents.  Once in, they’re a real problem. Fires have been started by squirrels chewing on the sheathing of electrical wiring, especially older wiring systems.  I’ve also known them to chew through ceiling drywall and get loose in the house.

If you notice lots of squirrel activity on the roof and sounds from the attic, contact a professional.

Photo: Jamie Morris.

What we do when we’re called is “exclusion work.”  We find the entry point and install a one-way door system.  (If it’s spring, we first make sure there are no newborns inside). Squirrels can leave but they can’t get back in. Seven to ten days later, we’ll return and seal off the opening. If entry is through a wooden vent we’ll replace it with metal.

Author’s note:  Karl Gleason, Fire Prevention Inspector for CKL has seen the results of squirrel activity.  Fifteen or twenty years ago he was called to the scene of a fire and found an incinerated squirrel with its jaws still clamped  to the electrical wire it had been chewing.

Bird Feeder Plunder

The expert: Luigi Richardson, avid birder and third year student in Fleming’s Fish and Wildlife Technology Program.

Luigi’s  advice:  

You need an understanding of both squirrels and birds to deal with this problem.  

There are all sorts of “squirrel-proof” feeders on the market. Some have baffles, others have weight-sensitive perches or cages. But, over time, squirrels will find a way past most defenses.

Especially if your bird-feed is a squirrel favourite such as sunflower or peanuts, you should position your feeder in an open area, 20 feet or so from the nearest tree or shrub and 5 or 6 feet off the ground.  (Squirrels can project themselves up to 10 feet horizontally and 4 feet vertically).

You could also choose feed that squirrels can’t be bothered with.  We’re talking about small seed. Safflower, for example, is enjoyed by cardinals, chickadees and finches.  Nyjer (thistle seed) is a favourite of finches, and white proso millet can be spread on the ground for doves, juncos and sparrows.  None of these seeds are of much interest to squirrels.

Another strategy is to divert squirrels by buying or constructing a squirrel feeder.  It can be as simple as two pieces of wood hammered together at 90 degrees with a spike through the bottom board holding a corn cob.  If you want some entertainment, buy a Squirrel-go-Round. Squirrels are forced to work for their corn-cob reward and you can sit back and enjoy their antics.

As a homeowner who has watched squirrels digging up recently-planted bulbs, has worried about scuffling sounds in the attic and has stored in his shed a large Rubbermaid container full of squirrel-ravaged “squirrel-proof feeder” parts, I’ll be filing away the advice from all three experts.

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