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Squirrels Can Develop a Taste For Pepper

Dear Bird Folks,

Like everyone else in the world we have problems with squirrels eating our bird food. I’ve heard that they make suet with hot pepper mixed in it. Do you know if this is an effective way of keeping the squirrels off suet? More importantly, is hot pepper safe for the birds to eat?

-Dan, Yarmouth, MA


Not suet, too, Dan,

What is with the hot stuff everyone is suddenly in love with? It used to be that the only hot food was found in Mexican or Thai restaurants, or in those disgusting Buffalo wings. Now it’s everywhere. Even formerly safe foods have gotten all spiced up. I’ve seen hot flavored potato chips, pretzels and lollypops. Lollypops!!! And if food doesn’t come already pre-spiced, then people will add their own hot stuff to it. What happened to the bland old days when an entire meal came out of a pressure cooker? I didn’t mind if everything I ate tasted like boiled cabbage. My mother just kept telling me it was St. Patrick’s Day again and that was good enough for me.

When it comes to keeping squirrels away from bird feeders even rational people do some whacky things, so the idea of mixing hot stuff into bird food doesn’t surprise me. Some companies even sell a hot mixture designed just for this purpose. It comes in little Cup-a-Soup style packets that we are supposed to mix into our birdseed. The theory is that when the hungry squirrels get a mouthful of the doctored-up seed they will choose starvation over the bad taste. The hot food that many humans think is so yummy is now supposed to make the squirrels runaway and never come back. Yeah, right.

I have to admit that I’ve never sold this stuff or tried to pepper-up my own birdseed, but I’ve talked with tons of customers who have. Nearly 100% of these pepper people reported that at first the squirrels actually didn’t eat the hot food. Then, as they became hungry, they slowly learned to deal with the nasty flavor, much like I had to do with boiled cabbage. Some customers even admitted that the experiment backfired on them. While mixing the pepper powder into their seed the wind blew it back at them, resulting in people actually Macing themselves. According to witnesses, above all the coughing, gagging and swearing, the faint sound of laughing squirrels could be heard in the distance.

A few years back Cornell University became involved in this hot pepper debate. In their study they used sunflower seed that had hot stuff applied directly to it (as opposed to a powder that was mixed in). They concluded, after their six-week study, that the applied hot pepper was 80% effective at deterring squirrels. The problem is that treated sunflower often costs double the price of regular sunflower. With only 80% effectiveness it doesn’t seem worth it, especially to my customers who often go off the deep end if they even see a squirrel in their neighborhood. An interesting aside in this Cornell study is that no amount of hot stuff affected chipmunks. They kept gathering seeds no matter what was put on them. Why are chipmunks immune to hot food, you ask? It seems that the chipmunk’s signature cheek pouches are fur-lined. Its mouth comes equipped with a built-in potholder. Who knew?

Besides their lack of effectiveness the main reason we have never sold any of these hot products is our concern for the birds themselves. Years ago one major birding publication strongly advised against adding hot stuff to seed. I remember the phrase they used was that they “abhorred the idea.” I didn’t know what “abhorred” meant, but it sure sounded bad. The problem is birds didn’t have the same oral receptors as mammals, so they don’t know they were ingesting the product. Because of that many people, including myself, were worried that it may cause the birds harm even though they couldn’t taste it. But like many things in life, it turns out we may have been were worried for nothing. In recent years I haven’t found anything that suggest eating hot pepper is bad for birds. Whew, one less thing to worry about.

While hot seed may not keep away squirrels, hot suet seems to actually work. The pepper is blended evenly throughout the suet cake, providing a more effective deterrent. The issue now becomes a personal one. Have you ever mistakenly eaten some hot sauce that made you run for cold water (which, of course, didn’t help)? How would you feel about putting a squirrel through the same experience? There are some who may not like to expose squirrels to something that causes such discomfort. Then there are the folks who would readily put molten lava into squirrel food and not think twice about it. Those people need serious therapy.

If I were you, Dan, I’d try offering your birds pure suet – that is, suet without any other additives at all. I find that the squirrels are typically attracted to the added ingredients like seed, corn, peanut butter, etc. Without all of the added stuff the squirrels usually leave the suet alone. And best of all, without the nasty pepper, pure suet is totally humane. Well, it’s humane if you don’t think about where the suet came from in the first place.