During the winter months bird lovers may find that the birds aren't the only ones interested in bird feeders. Our poor little dears had to compete with a neighboring bear for their food. Claire in Vermont is having trouble too. She writes...
Dear Bird Folks,
Over the past few weeks I have lost three suet feeders to the squirrels. It's bad enough that they eat all the bird's food, but now they are stealing my feeders. I put out a new feeder and the next morning it is completely gone and I can't find it. Do you have any suggestions on how I can keep the squirrels from stealing my feeders?
~ Claire, Montpelier, VT
First a story, Claire,
I know you asked a question about squirrels, but first I have to tell you about the time a sweet ten-year-old boy was punished for breaking one of his neighbor's windows. Although the neighbor didn't see the boy break the window, she was certain he did it and went directly to his house to complain to my parents...ah, I mean the boy's parents.
Okay, fine, it was me who got into trouble for the broken window. It's true. There once was a time when I wasn't perfect. Back then I was always getting myself into some kind of difficulty, just like gray squirrels do now. But strangely enough, in this one particular incident, I was innocent. I really didn't break the window. And the squirrels, in this one particular incident, are innocent, too. Here's why.
The key phrase in your question is: "...the next morning it (your new suet feeder) was completely gone." The creature that stole your feeder likes to work under the cover of darkness. Gray squirrels are diurnal. They are afraid of the dark. That's why you never see them at the drive-in, watching fireworks, or playing flashlight tag.
The other thing to keep in mind is that squirrels are the smartest creatures on the planet. Members of Mensa can only dream of being as smart as a squirrel. A squirrel will rarely steal a feeder, just like a dog won't steal its own food bowl. If the feeder or bowl isn't there then there will be no receptacle for us humans to put more food into. Squirrels have everything planned out.
If it's not gray squirrels stealing your feeders at night, what is? The first suspect is the flying squirrel. Flying squirrels come out at night and are far more common than most people realize, but they are also way too cute to steal anything. Don't blame flying squirrels.
Opossums come out at night, and cuteness is definitely not a factor for them, but they are probably too stupid to steal anything. I doubt it's an opossum.
Other possible suspects are bears, fishers and martins. Bears are asleep this time of year, so don't worry about them and I don't know anything about fishers or martins. That leaves us with one last nighttime raider, the raccoon. Raccoons are strong, agile, clever and natural born thieves. If they could learn how to put on a suit and tie a necktie, Wall Street would hire them in a second. I'm betting raccoons are your perpetrators.
Raccoons work at night. They climb trees, love suet and stealing is part of their method of operation. Although somewhat solitary, related female raccoons often have the same feeding area. And like most related females they hate each other or are at least constantly jealous of each other. If one raccoon finds some food the others want to take it away.
One moonlit night I watched a raccoon try to fend off other raccoons that were also trying to get to my suet feeder. Instead of trying to fight all of them at once, the first raccoon simply lifted the feeder off the hook and scurried up the tree, carrying both the suet and the feeder.
She then ran out on a branch and turned around to face her pursuers. At this point she knew that nothing could sneak up from behind since she was at the end of the branch.
And since the branch was thin, she also knew that only one raccoon could confront her at time. There would be no ganging up on this raccoon. Any raccoon that dared to come close was met with claws across the nose and those hideous, growling screams that would make Stephen King nervous.
Most people who report stolen feeders claim that they are never able to find them again. That's because they are looking on the ground. Try looking high on the outer branches of a tree (really). You may have better luck. Once when I was looking on the ground for my missing suet feeder the wind blew and the feeder fell out of a tree and hit me on the top of the head (again, really).
Even regular bird feeders aren't safe from raccoons, Claire, but those larger feeders are usually found mangled on the ground. The best way to keep any feeder safe is to hang it off a metal pole that has a raccoon baffle on it. A raccoon baffle looks like a squirrel baffle only it's much bigger, with a bigger price tag.
If you are too cheap to spring for a baffle, an alternative is to simply bring your suet feeder into the house each night and set it on the kitchen table until morning. That will keep it safe. However, if your husband starts coming to bed with suet on his breath, that's a problem I can't help you with.
Mike O'Connor, owner of Bird Watcher's General Store, writes the popular column, Ask the Bird Folks, for The Cape Codder newspaper. Every week Mike tries to answer some of life's most challenging questions. You know, bird questions.
If you are ever in the neighborhood be sure to stop in and and say hello!
If you have a question for the bird experts, please e-mail Mike or call (508) 255-6974.
This article was originally published by the Bird Watcher's General Store and is reprinted here with permission.