Squirrel Obstacle Courses and Feeders
By Chris Uhtoff
For many backyard bird feeders squirrels are enemy number one. A single gray squirrel can eat 2 lbs of sunflower seeds per week. A mammals' appetite seems to be bottomless. A bird however, well, eats like a bird. While a squirrel is busy eating few birds will use that feeder. But squirrels are an important part of our biologically fragmented suburban ecosystems. Their stashing away of seeds and nuts helps to propagate suburban forests, and their love of mushrooms help spread mychorrizal mushrooms, which are critical to the health of tree roots. trying to keep squirrels away from your bird feeders can lead to more complicated, and expensive feeders or unsightly attachments to your beautiful handcrafted bird feeders. Maybe we should accept the squirrels into our backyard and give them a feeder of their own. Who knows, you might find squirrel's acrobatics stealing the backyard show.
By feeding squirrels low cost foods such as corn or millet it might be a minimal cost and will be much less stressful. Cracked corn is loved by squirrels and is very cheap when purchased at farm supply stores and the inexpensive bird seed mixes available at grocery stores contain mostly millet, Milo and other fillers that may appeal to squirrels.Obviously you can use any bird feeder to feed squirrels. Just make sure you place the squirrel feeder on the most common route from their home trees to your other feeders. Squirrels particularly love Platform feeders, especially ones that offer the security of a roof. Platform feeders allow the squirrels to attain that supreme indulgence of eating while lying down.
While any bird feeder would work why not gain some entertainment value and give squirrels a little exercise by using feeders designed especially for their particular skill set. The most versatile squirrel feeder is a box with a hinged lid and a clear front panel; the squirrels can see the seeds and nuts through the glass and will lift the lid to feed. Jays like these feeders too, especially if peanuts are involved. We carry some from Erva, Wildlife's Choice and Bird's Choice. A fun feeder is the Dine Inside feeder where the squirrel feeds inside a box that's open on both ends. Similar feeders use a gallon glass jar but because of the danger of broken glass in the backyard I would recommend changing out the glass jar with a clear plastic jar. The boxes and platform feeders are great because you can use whichever foods are handy and squirrels aren't picky.
The most popular type of squirrel feeders at we sell, use ears of corn to entice squirrels. The simplest of these is the Squirrel Platform, which also works great for holding fruit for orioles; the Squirrel Teeter Totter adds a little excitement to this same idea. The Squngee is probably the most exciting Squirrel feeder; it attaches two ears of corn to a bungee cord. The squirrel bounces up and down when feeding and a bell on the top lets you know when squirrels are using it. Other fun and popular feeders are Cobs- a- Twirl, Spin-a- Cob, and the Squirrel Pin Wheel.
But why limit your furry friends to what's commercially available. Here are some simple ideas for a backyard squirrel jungle gym. Your neighbors may not appreciate the project as much as you do so it might be best in the backyard.
The key to building a squirrel obstacle course is setting up a bird feeder system that squirrels can't use without going through the course. As long as you have some open space to work with, this is not as tough as it sounds. A squirrel proof/resistant feeder just needs to be at least 10' from any branches or buildings. Squirrels are skilled athletes, they can jump 10' horizontally, more than 10' if they are jumping down, and about 4' strait up. The simplest way to put a feeder out in the middle of your yard is with a Garden Shepard's pole, 4x4 post in concrete or metal pole buried in the soil. Then attach a squirrel baffle 4' up the pole. We carry a number of sturdy metal baffles for both poles and hanging feeders. Or you can make your own pole simply slide a 4' long section of large diameter (over 3”) plastic pipe over the feeder pole and that's it, this will be too slick and too wide for squirrels to climb up.
The cheaper way, and better for building your squirrel obstacle courses is to use plastic coated laundry cable. Attach the thin cable between two trees or buildings and hang the feeder low enough so that you can fill it from the ground or with a small stepladder. If your safe feeding space is elevated, loop the cable around a pulley/s at each end to pull in the feeder to fill and maintain it. My squirrels haven't figured out this thin cable, but you might have to add a little slack in the line to make it even more difficult to walk along. For a bit of excitement you could use bungee cord material and hang the feeder low enough so the squirrels can jump to it and have a bit of a ride.
The easiest way to build an obstacle course is to hang attachments onto the plastic coated laundry cable holding your feeder. This way you can remove and adjust the pieces easily. If your using a baffled pole feeder, add a cable to hang pieces from or use large diameter plastic pipe buried in the ground to create post mounted platforms and connections. Be sure to build the obstacle course over soft ground, or not too high so any possible squirrel falls would be short and harmless. The idea is to create platforms and connections between them to allow the squirrels to reach your feeder through a certain amount of work. Platforms can be any semi flat object that you will hang to the laundry cable. Try attaching a platform with a single rope or with elastic rope for particularly athletic squirrels. If the squirrels try to skip the platforms by running along the cable you can thread short pieces of plastic pipe to create a log rolling effect or use, or CDs and old records to block them. Connecting pieces can be anything that uses the squirrels athletic ability, Try loose string attached horizontally which requires squirrels to go hand over hand, bungee material to run on, knotted rope to climb up. You can make a tunnel using large diameter plastic pipe with a knotted rope through the center which allows the squirrel to climb inside the pipe, for this, the pipe needs to be at a steep enough angle to stop the squirrel from running along the top of it. An inexpensive pinwheel platform can be made with an old lawn mower wheel with wooden blocks attached to give the squirrel a good jumping surface.
Be sure to check out some of the hilarious videos of squirrel obstacle courses on You Tube for more design ideas. Check out our Bird Cam or Birdhouse Cam to capture your backyard show with minimal effort. Who knows your own backyard might be the setting for the funniest videos. Have fun and enjoy those squirrels.