Dear Bird Folks,
Over the past few weeks I have lost three suet feeders to the squirrels. It’s bad enough they eat all the birds’ food, but now they are stealing. My husband put out a new feeder yesterday and this morning it was completely gone. And to make things worse, I can never 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. Even though the accusing 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. I know it’s hard to believe, but 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. But strangely enough, in this one particular occasion, I was innocent. I really didn’t break the window. And the squirrels, in this one particular occasion, are innocent, too. Here’s why.
The key phrase in your question is: “… this morning it [the new 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 squirrels 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.) Because they are so smart, squirrels will rarely steal a feeder, just like a dog won’t steal its own food bowl. If the feeder (or dog bowl) is gone, then there is no receptacle for us humans to put more food into. Squirrels know better than to kill the golden birdfeeder.
If gray squirrels aren’t stealing your feeders at night, what is? The first suspect is the flying squirrel. Flying squirrels come out at night, are far more common than most people realize and love to come to birdfeeders when no one is looking. But have you ever seen the face of a flying squirrel? Those little guys are way too cute to steal anything. Opossums also come out at night, and cuteness is definitely not a factor for them, but they can’t even cross the street without getting run over. I doubt they have the brains to be crooks. Another possible suspect is a bear, but bears don’t steal, they demolish. That leaves us with one last nighttime raider, the raccoon. Raccoons are strong, agile, clever and natural-born thieves. Heck, they are even born wearing burglar masks. I’m pretty sure raccoons are your perpetrators.
Why would a raccoon want to steal a feeder instead of just taking the food…squirrel-style? Well, like most crooks, raccoons aren’t very generous. They aren’t about to share their booty with their fellow thieves. If one raccoon finds some food, you can bet others will 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. The first raccoon grabbed the feeder and scurried up a tree with it. It then ran out on a branch and turned around to face its pursuers. There would be no sneaking or ganging up on this raccoon. Any fellow raccoon that dared to come close was met with claws and screams so hideous they 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). Once, when I was doing some yard work, the wind blew and my missing suet feeder fell out of a tree and nearly clunked me on the top of the head (again, really).
When I tell folks raccoons are responsible for their missing feeders the response is always, “I’ve never seen a raccoon in my yard.” Like vampires and werewolves, raccoons typically work late at night, and thus are only seen by insomniacs. In recent years, raccoons have been scarce in some locations. During the last decade their population has suffered a major decline, probably due to distemper…or hypertension from eating too much suet. As a result, many folks have forgotten about them. But they are back, big time. In addition to stealing suet feeders, raccoons will also knockdown regular birdfeeders and may drain or absolutely destroy hummingbird feeders. And when this happens, who gets blamed? That’s right, Mr. Squirrel.
The best way to keep any feeder safe from hungry raccoons, Claire, is to hang the feeder off a metal pole that is protected by a raccoon baffle. A raccoon baffle looks like a squirrel baffle but it’s much bigger, with a much bigger price tag. If you are too cheap to spring for a baffle, an alternative is to simply bring your feeder in each night and put it back out again in the morning. It’s labor intensive, but it does the job.
BTW: I never did find out who broke my neighbor’s window. I just know it wasn’t me. But the more I think about it, I’ll bet it was a squirrel.