Feeder under attack? Call squirrel busters

Bubba Scales of Wild Birds Unlimited sells a half dozen feeders advertised as squirrel proof that he calls spuirrel resistant. One of his more entertaining feeders is The Yankee Flipper, which sends stealing squirrels spinning when activated by the squirrels weight. (DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun)

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, January 27, 2003 at 5:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 27, 2003 at 5:17 p.m.
One of my Christmas gifts this year was a bird feeder. Right after Christmas I mounted it on a pole, filled it up with seed, planted it in the flower bed by the patio and a few minutes later birds were circling like planes over O'Hare. Chickadees and cardinals were doing touch-and-go landings and feedings.
The cylinder-shaped feeder was designed with smaller birds in mind, a couple of short perches and a little tray at the bottom to catch the dropped seed. The show was amazing - for about two days. That's when the squirrels moved in and the birds moved out.
I was sitting on the couch watching the show when the first fuzzy-tail rat arrived. I wasn't too upset by this, even though I have a strong anti-squirrel streak dating back to a few rogues that chewed their way through a Tupperware container at a picnic, jimmied the lid and proceeded to dance and devour my homemade carrot birthday cake, leaving their disgusting little gray hair and footprints all over the cream cheese icing.
Anyway, I've tried to temper my less-than charitable squirrel views over the years. I even do my best to avoid them when they do the dance of death in front of my car. I've been known to bite my tongue when I hear of people going to great lengths to save babies that I know will grow up to eat birthday cakes and rob birdfeeders.
So I watched the invader with a live and let live attitude - and 40 minutes later it was still on the feeder, its gut so fat that it appeared to have doubled in size since climbing aboard. So I opened the porch door and hollered at it, and I could swear it gave me the rodent equivalent of an obscene gesture and continued to stuff its face until I approached the feeder and it dropped to the ground and waddled to a nearby pine.
I went back inside and squirrel No. 2 arrived and tried to show his predecessor how to really do some damage at this all-you-can-eat seed diner. By early afternoon the feeder was empty. And when I went out to fill it up, I could see that not only had they eaten the feed, they'd helped themselves to the feeder. The little plastic guards on the perches were gnawed off, and the paint around the little seed portholes was chiseled away.
So much for my good attitude. I took off the little seed-catching tray the squirrels used as a perch. I was apparently suffering from a delusion that this would slow them down. About an hour later my buddy was back, hanging upside down and gorging himself, scampering back to the post just long enough to swallow, then doing his trapeze act again to devour what was left.
I knew I couldn't win this war without a battle plan. I visited Wild Birds Unlimited and asked Bubba Scales for help.
In spite of what the store's name might imply, "We spend more time talking about squirrels than birds," he informed me.
His store on NW 16th Boulevard, on the front side of Millhopper Shopping Center, has feeders, birdbaths, feed, spotting scopes and more, including an entire arsenal of feeders that the manufacturers claim are squirrel proof, but that Bubba refers to as squirrel resistant. A video touting the Yankee Flipper brings customers in just to see it, Bubba says, and they frequently return with friends in tow to show them.
The flipper combines a birdfeeder with a merry-go-round. When squirrels go to grab the circular perch on the bottom, the weight pulls it down, engaging a tiny electric motor which sets the wheel spinning and sends the squirrels flying, complete with little cartoonesque voices. The video is a hoot, but it's not going to win any award based on production values. It does make an effective pitch for the feeder. Bubba says he's sold a bunch of them at $110. But he lets the buyers know the backyard show may not match the video.
"The squirrels learn so fast they often don't get to see the squirrels fly off," he said.
A similar model, without the special effects or motors, simply closes the door to the food with the weight of a squirrel. Another operates like a teeter-totter, when the squirrel steps aboard, the perch drops down, and the food access disappears. He also sells a baffle device that fits over a post that prevents squirrels from climbing up to the feeder.
But in his line of work, he's always hearing about squirrels that out-smart the feeder makers.
"They slow squirrels way down. They provide a great deal of squirrel resistance," he said.
By visiting Ron Robinson's, my squirrel busting education continued. Robinson is an avid birder and helps homeowners with birdscaping, landscaping that is bird-friendly. Like Bubba, he says one of the keys to keeping squirrels off of the feeders is cutting their access, making sure there are no limbs within 10-feet that will provide a convenient diving board to the buffet line. His hanging feeders also are equipped with large conical baffles that prevent the squirrels from scampering down the wire or chain to the food. Keeping the baffles 5 inches wider than the feeder prevents the free-fall and grab approach to the feed. He also keeps the feeders at least 5 feet off the ground, to discourage high jumpers.
"My credo is not to feed squirrels," he said. "They can have anything that hits the ground. I don't persecute them."
In the center of his yard is a feeder on a post that to an untrained eye would appear to have "Squirrel Cafe" emblazoned in neon on the roof.
"This is about 20 years old and I've never had a squirrel in here," he said.
Located away from surrounding bushes and branches, the secret is in the mounting post. The 8-inch diameter PVC pipe is too slippery to scamper up and too wide to grab.
"You can paint it green and it blends right in," he said, slapping the post.
Even without elaborate countermeasures, Bubba says there is a simple step to slow the squirrels down - changing feed.
"Safflower seed is a great low-tech fix for a lot of people," he said. "It's bitter, and squirrels, unlike birds, have many more taste buds."
Ron says squirrels aren't crazy about thistle seed (sometimes labeled niger), and he recommends a mix of safflower and thistle to attract birds and repel squirrels. He says the squirrels don't seem to be interested in his recipe for suet - 1 cup of lard, 2 cups of corn meal, -cup peanut butter and a tablespoon of sugar - that he throws into the blender then rolls into balls.
So, after doing my stint in squirrel buster boot camp, I returned home to find my feeder empty and a squirrel that seemed to be tapping its toe impatiently, waiting for me to fill it.
But I switched to a thistle and safflower seed combo, and the fuzzy guys aren't as interested, which is good, but the birds aren't as enthusiastic either. I may have one of those econo model squirrel resistant feeders in my future. Until then, I'm considering it a standoff. I've lost some battles, but the war isn't over.
Gary Kirkland can be reached at 338-3104 or kirklag@gvillesun.com.
the squirrel buster story should run as a umain column/ Tim says he can put a link on our website with the video clip of the Yankee Flipper, if not readers will need to go to www.yankeeflipper.com gk

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