Updated: Sep 8
Are squirrels cute and cuddly or fierce and fiendish? I will be the judge. (And I already decided the latter.)
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Squirrels at the Bird Feeder
We have all been there. You are at the sink, thoroughly scrubbing a coffee mug with a healthy dose of "Joy" liquid dish soap and an overly-used $0.50 sponge hastily bought from the local grocer. You look out the kitchen window at your bird feeders, enjoying the various sparrows, finches, and chickadees utilizing your bird-buffet. Then suddenly, you are overcome with an overwhelming rage, a fury with the force of 10,000 suns! You have just spotted your backyard adversary, a fox squirrel.
We can already see the hordes of people lining up to say that we should let the squirrels be. However, our deterrent is safe, humane, and healthier for the squirrels. You read that correctly. Deterring the squirrels is a better option than allowing them to feed. Why? Disease and dependency. Feeding a wild animal (other than birds) is frequently a death sentence for that animal. In fact, most areas outlaw the feeding of non-bird animals. So, if you really want to help that squirrel, deter it, do not feed it.
You have tried all the squirrel prevention tips out there: an anti-squirrel cone device, a fake owl, a real dog, pounding on the windows, swearing in a falsetto, and dashing out in your robe and slippers (hopefully not scarring your neighbor's eyes). If you would prefer to not harm a squirrel performing its squirrely duties, you are left with no more options. Or are you?
This summer, I had several squirrels regularly visiting my feeders. While they were not cleaning out my seed stash, they were leaving a noticeable dent. They were also preventing the local birds from visiting my "smorgasbird." I combed through tips, tricks, ideas, and public indecency laws (my neighbors now have blinds). During this extensive research, I stumbled upon a humane way to deal with my squirrel problem:
Cayenne Pepper - The Ultimate Squirrel Deterrent
Cayenne pepper is a GREAT squirrel repellent. Why? The chemical in cayenne pepper is the same chemical used in pepper spray, a common deterrent for bears and humans. Why couldn't it also act as a deterrent for squirrels?
Capsaicin - safe for birds, an annoyance to mammals
Capsaicin is the component of peppers that makes your mouth feel hot. Growing up in a southern household, we were never without multiple types of red pepper seasonings. You may also recognize it for its use in pepper spray. (And I can personally attest to the effectiveness of pepper spray, as I have an embarrassing story from my childhood where I managed to pepper spray myself.)
A mammal, like a fox squirrel, is subject to the effects of a low concentration of capsaicin. They can feel the heat of 10 - 100 ppm, which is the heat equivalency of a single jalapeño pepper. Some may think birds are lacking the anatomy that causes mammals to feel "spicy." However, that would appear to be incorrect. Birds and mammals both have the "capsaicin receptor," but due to some scientific explanation that would require another hour of typing, their receptors can handle a higher concentration (ppm) than mammals.
What does all this mean? It means you need to "pepper spray" your birdseed. After discovering this trick, I tested it on my feeders. The squirrels had become just as intuitive to my feeding schedule as the birds, so upon my morning feeding, I covered all loose seed in a healthy dose of cayenne pepper. The sparrows were the first to arrive, eating the seeds with no obvious signs of distaste. Less than 10 minutes after the seeds were placed, the first squirrel arrived. It crawled out onto my platform feeder, sniffing and grabbing seeds. I watched. I waited. I resisted the urge to throw a shoe...
Wait for it. Wait for it. WHOA! The squirrel began sneezing and rubbing its face. After 30 seconds of trying to eat the seeds, the squirrel gave up and ran off to tend to its flaming nose and mouth. I had at least one male and one female that were haunting my feeders. The female arrived later in the morning and shared a similar experience to the male.
The next big question was, would they come back?
The method for deterring squirrels with pepper
I performed this task of peppering my feeders and seed for 3 to 4 days in the spring, and my feeders were squirrel free for over a month. They did show up occasionally, but they only fed on seed on the ground. I decided this was an acceptable compromise. By the end of the summer, I had three new squirrels. How did I know they were new? They were young squirrels. I "seasoned" my feeders several more times in August, and I did not have a squirrel on my feeder until the last weeks of November.
How do we spell success? P-E-P-P-E-R!
Yes, your answer for the best squirrel repellant is cayenne pepper. (Or some other capsaicin-based seasoning/oil).
Fat Black Squirrel
In the summer of 2020, we attempted to use cayenne pepper as a test on a much larger pest:
Bear repellent for bird feeders?
The above photos were taken by Bart Rea, who allows us to operate a research station out of his cabin. We fill the feeders when we are present, and the bear obliges us by emptying them out overnight and on off-days.
In the summer of 2020, I tested multiple capsaicin-based methods of bear repellant on the bird feeders. I reasoned, if capsaicin bear spray can stop a grizzly from attacking me, I'm sure we can prevent unprovoked bear attacks on bird feeders. The cayenne pepper did deter the bear from the feeders we tested it on. The feeders without pepper... were demolished. The longterm viability of cayenne pepper use against bears needs more time. However, cayenne pepper does seem like a great short-term deterrent for bears, and a lasting deterrent for squirrels.
Again, we remind you, deterring wild mammals from being fed is your RESPONSIBILITY when you feed birds. You do not help wild mammals by feeding them. However, you can cause harm to them by allowing them to feed at will. Capsaicin in low concentrations will have no lasting effect on the squirrels or bears.
Disclaimer: If your pets eat the seasoned seed, they may have a bad experience as well. Do not let your pets eat or smell the seasoned seed.
If you want to find out our best feeder recommendations, read our post on it here!
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