Dear Bird Folks,
As with most people, we have been fighting an endless battle with the neighborhood squirrels. We can’t keep them out of our birdfeeder. My cousin suggested I try birdseed that has been laced with hot pepper. She says the birds don’t mind, but the squirrels stay away. Have you ever tried it and if so, does it work? Is it safe for birds?
– Jim, Duxbury, MA
Not this again, Jim,
It’s amazing how things come and go, and then come back again. When we run out of new ideas, we just drag out the old stuff. Star Wars, for example, never stops coming back, and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before someone makes another TV show about a talking horse. But I never thought the hot birdseed topic would come back around; yet, here it is again. What’s next? The return of “Keep on Truckin’” T-shirts? If so, I’m ready.
It was back in 1993 when I first started receiving questions about a product called Squirrel Away. Squirrel Away was a powder made from Capsicum peppers. Capsicum peppers contain capsaicin, which is the ingredient that makes hot peppers taste hot. A little capsaicin gives food a nice spicy flavor, but too much can cause steam to come out of your mouth (or so it seems). The makers of Squirrel Away figured that if this hot stuff were mixed in with birdseed, the squirrels would take one bite and “go away,” hence the name. The next question is: Wouldn’t the stuff also deter the birds? No, it won’t. Birds don’t have the same taste receptors in their mouths that mammals have and thus can’t detect the heat. Birds can eat all the hot peppers they want and never feel a thing. In other words, you should not get into a hot sauce-eating contest with a cardinal or a titmouse because you will get smoked (literally).
We never carried Squirrel Away, but we did hear quite a bit of feedback about it, and the majority of the feedback was negative. Like most anti-squirrel products of the time, it just didn’t work very well. In addition, consumers had to mix the product into each and every bag of seed. This was not only laborious, but the people doing the mixing occasionally got the hot powder in their eyes (and don’t think the squirrels didn’t find that ironic…or funny).
Is hot powder safe for birds? When this product first came on the market birding organizations were very concerned. Even though the birds couldn’t feel the burn (sorry, Bernie), there was a chance they were being affected internally or in some other undetectable way. Today, some organizations think it’s totally safe for birds, while others still aren’t sure. Regardless, I don’t see Squirrel Away advertised anymore and apparently the company has gone out of business. In other words, the squirrels win again.
One of the difficulties with Squirrel Away was the chore of mixing it into the seed. It was a pain in the neck (and the eyes). With that problem in mind, another company eventually came out with a different hot birdseed product. But instead of selling a mixable powder, they sold seed with the hot stuff factory-installed. This was a major improvement. Folks reported that the pre-coated seed worked (mostly) at keeping the squirrels away from their feeders. Good news, right? Well, not really. The factory-installed hot seed comes with a price, a high price. How high? One online dealer sells fifty pounds of hot seeds for (get ready) $228.85. Yes, you read that right. They charge $288.85 for a bag of birdseed. Can you imagine? I didn’t pay that much for my first car (or my second or third car). In addition to the high cost, some organizations, including the Humane Society and Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, still have concerns about offering birds spiced-up food and recommend that we don’t use it. Even the company that makes the hot seed suggests we handle it with rubber gloves and keep it away from children. That should tell you something.
For years, the number one concern from customers was squirrels, but over the past ten years that hasn’t been the case. The recent batch of squirrel-proof feeders has been so effective that I don’t hear squirrel complaints nearly as much as I used to. Today’s top complaints are mostly directed at grackles (“those darn blackbirds”), raccoons and the ever-cute chipmunks. My advice, Jim, is to invest in a good squirrel-proof feeder, then take the money you saved by not buying expensive hot birdseed and buy something for yourself, such as a slightly used ”Keep on Truckin’” T-shirt. I’ll give you a good deal.
Speaking of birdseed.
It is June and birds are now gathering those tiny green worms we are seeing everywhere, and are feeding them to their nestlings. As a result, your feeders, my feeders and everyone’s feeders are getting fewer birds. This will last for a couple of weeks until the worms are gone and this year’s crop of baby birds starts flying. Then our feeders will become busier than ever. So, please, please refuse the urge to call me and ask, “Where are all the birds?” No one feels your pain more than I do. Each June my seed sales plummet and hearing people complain about “no birds” is like rubbing hot pepper into the wound. So, just relax. The birds will be back at your feeder before you know it. In the meantime, keep on truckin’.