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Squirrels are People, Too

Rebekah Heppner, Master Gardener Volunteer Trainee

I inherited my appreciation of nature from my father. I don’t know if he loved bees and butterflies as much as I do, but he definitely loved birds. He always had a bird house and multiple bird feeders in his yard. I remember clearly how hard he worked to protect his bird feeders from squirrels. It was an ongoing battle, one you may have experienced yourself. Dad didn’t have as many options as we have today, but the early form of domes (those upside-down bowls that hang over feeders) were available. When that didn’t work, he tried moving the feeders to an open area where there was no chance the squirrels could jump onto them. They could still, however, climb up the poles, so he tried making his own version of “bafflers” to put on the poles. The squirrels were not baffled. That’s all I remember of his battle of wills with the squirrels, but I do not believe he won. Knowing that, however, did not deter me from trying to outwit my own generation of squirrels.

Squirrel on University of Florida campus. UF/IFAS Photo: Thomas Wright.

When I started gardening, one of the first things I did was put up a basic tube feeder. It did not take long until I understood my father’s frustration. The squirrels were getting most of the seeds. But I love all of nature, not just birds, so I thought, “Squirrels are people, too!” (That’s my sarcastic way of saying they need to eat like everyone else.) So, I added a squirrel feeder, one of those metal things that looks like a cylindrical cage and holds dried corn. The squirrels loved it. Problem solved? Of course not. There is not enough corn in the world to keep them from moving on to the bird feeder eventually.

My dad didn’t have Google. I googled this dilemma and found a twenty-first century solution: a feeder that closes itself when something as heavy as a squirrel jumps on it. Brilliant. It worked. For a while. But twenty-first century squirrels are smart – and, apparently, master gymnasts. A couple of them figured out that they could extend their little bodies horizontally from the pole to the feeder and very carefully take a seed without putting enough weight on the feeder to cause it to shut. See photo for evidence of their acrobatic skills!

Squirrel acrobatics!

All of this effort, useless as it turned out to be, reminded me of an important benefit of native gardening. If we plant things that birds like to eat, they won’t need bird feeders. We live in Florida, for goodness sake, we can have food sources growing in our yards year-round if we plan it out properly. I can also encourage birds to visit my yard by providing water in bird baths – to drink and to splash in. And I leave spaces between plants for the birds to hunt for bugs and worms and provide them bushes and shrubs for resting and hiding from hawks. I occasionally catch them sleeping there or, even better, building nests to raise their young. In fact, my yard is now a certified wildlife habitat. I have the sign to prove it.

But I still have feeders. I just really love seeing the birds on them. I’ve decided it is okay to lose some of the seeds to the squirrels. When I have guests on my porch, I can wow them with the squirrel gymnastics show. Those little devils sneak bites from my strawberries, too, although I can’t ever catch them at it. I know there are more strategies I can try, I just don’t see the need to spend any additional time or energy fighting this battle. After all, “Squirrels are people, too!”