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To Us It’s Bird Food, But to Wily Squirrels It’s Haute Cuisine

December 6, 1995

The life of Bill Adler Jr. changed irrevocably the afternoon he came home to find squirrels feasting at the bird feeder he had mounted the day before. He screamed at them, but they quickly lost their fear. The water pistols and rubber-tipped darts he fired seemed only to amuse them. Even a new bird feeder, advertised as ``squirrelproof,″ thwarted them only until they figured out how to lift its lid.

Finally, he prevailed _ by hanging the feeder on a long pole surrounded by baffles and sharp wires. By then his obsession had led him to write a book called ``Outwitting Squirrels.″

Lots of Americans _ actually, about 63 million by the U.S. government’s count _ feed birds. And about 100 percent of squirrels love to eat bird food. Inevitably, outrage ensues when a bird lover sees the bushy tail of a rodent protruding from his $100 bird feeder.

``It’s sort of a contest between good and evil,″ says Mr. Adler, of Washington. ``Birds are pretty and they fly and they have colorful feathers. Squirrels are nasty robbers.″

Such strong feelings have inspired strong sales at wild-bird retail stores. Stores fill their shelves with ``squirrelproof″ merchandise. Stores in regions without squirrels ``think of ways to import them,″ jokes Jim Lesch, director of purchasing for the 209-store chain Wild Birds Unlimited Inc.

One such product placed on the shelves this year is J’z Electronic Bird Feeder, which recently won an innovative-product-of-the-year award from the 102-store chain Wild Bird Centers of America Inc. It looks like a high-tech gas lantern, requires two D-cell batteries and delivers an electrical charge through its roost. While birds’ feet and beaks don’t conduct electricity, the shock sends squirrels scurrying.

``I don’t know how much discomfort it causes, because I’m not a squirrel,″ says John Boaz, a Centreville, Va., inventor who built the feeder. ``But it’s not a desperate, passionate escape. They give it sort of a look of wonder.″

Squirrel lovers aren’t amused. Shocking squirrels or scorching their mouths with pepper-laced bird feed _ another hot new tactic _ is ``mean-spirited,″ says Anna Steeves, who sets out food for wild critters in Hood River, Ore. ``Squirrels are funny, ambitious and dedicated. It’s a shame people malign them.″

Unquestionably, squirrels are worthy adversaries. Their long claws allow them to cling to almost any surface. Doublejointed ankles enable them to climb down as well as up. They can jump up to eight feet, chew through wood and plastic, or failing that, knock a feeder to the ground. And no matter how many falls they take, they keep climbing and leaping until they succeed.

Indeed, their ability to learn through trial and error belies their miniature brain. ``Squirrels have a good sense of three-dimensional problem solving,″ says Peter Smallwood, visiting assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. ``If you’ve got a dog tied to a post, and it gets itself tangled around the post . . . it can’t figure out that it has to back up. Squirrels don’t have a problem thinking like that.″

Then there is the matter of a squirrel’s appetite. ``Tree rats,″ as some birders call them, love the sunflower seeds common in wild-bird mix, although they don’t stop there. A squirrel can eat several ounces of bird feed in one sitting, leaving nothing for the birds. This combination of appetite and biological advantages makes defeating squirrels impossible, says Bill Thompson III, editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest magazine, ``unless you’re willing to take desperate measures.″

Inventors and retailers are willing. One feeder on the market features a weight-sensitive roost that drops when a squirrel leaps upon it. The drop prompts a sheet of metal to close over the food opening, just as the door of a laundry chute would. The roost can be set to turn away only the heaviest birds, such as crows. Despite price tags of as much as $80, sales have been brisk, says Roger Lundstrom, president of Century Tool & Manufacturing Co. in Cherry Valley, Ill., which makes a weight-sensitive feeder called the Absolute. Although declining to cite actual sales, he says, ``It’s a very, very niche market, but for whatever reason, that market seems to be growing.″

When the product first appeared about five years ago, birders thought inventors ``had finally come up with the ultimate solution,″ says Sue Wells, director of the National Bird-Feeding Society. Alas, as several astonished bird-lovers have seen, squirrels can defeat the weight-sensitive feeder _ by putting their heads together. While one squirrel stands on the counterweight bar behind the feeder, thereby keeping the front door from shutting, another stands on the roost and feeds.

If squirrels can’t be kept away from bird feed, some believe the answer is to diminish its appeal by lacing it with capsaicin, the substance in hot peppers that creates a sense of heat. Two big sellers these days are Squirrel Away, a red powder that can be mixed in bird seed, and Squirrel Free, a brand of bird seed with capsaicin already mixed in.

While the spiciness doesn’t affect birds, which routinely eat the seeds of hot peppers and fruits, it gives a squirrel the feeling that it has just eaten a large jalapeno pepper. ``It’s like eating at a bad Thai restaurant,″ says Alex Fernandez, president of Scrypton Systems Inc. of Annapolis, Md., the maker of Squirrel Away. ``They run away, drink water, and rub their mouths in the grass.″

Scientists attest to the harmlessness of the pepper, but doubts are arising about its long-term effectiveness. At Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where ornithology is a popular subject, researchers are testing whether repeated exposure desensitizes squirrels to the spice.

Some bird feeders profess to know the answer. ``I tried the pepper-based″ bird feed, says Dick Mallery, publisher of the Dick E. Bird News, a bird-watching publication. ``The squirrels were snorting dirt for a while after the first episode. Then they were coming back and asking for Dos Equis beer.″

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