By Soni Cochran, Extension Associate, Lancaster County
Tree squirrels live in wooded habitats in both rural and urban areas. Many people enjoy watching tree squirrels in their neighborhoods and appreciate them as backyard wildlife. As a valued game animal, many Nebraskans hunt fox squirrels and gray squirrels for their meat and fur. While tree squirrels are important in the ecosystem, there are also challenges when their behaviors come into conflict with humans. One of the best ways to prevent conflicts is to modify the habitat around your home so squirrels don’t find it as inviting.
SQUIRRELS AT BIRD FEEDERS
It can be fun for the entire family to watch squirrels at your bird feeders. It can also be frustrating. Squirrels consume large amounts of bird seed and when they take over a feeder, will keep the birds away. Here are some ideas to help you deter squirrels from feeders:
• Place your feeders at least 10 feet away from where a squirrel can jump from any direction to get to the seed. They will leap from a roof, a branch, a fence or jump up 5 feet from the ground.
• Use a baffle to put above and/or below a bird feeder. Baffles are designed as a barrier to keep animals from getting to a feeder. When the squirrel lands on a baffle, the hope is the animal just slides off. Baffles aren’t always guaranteed to work for these acrobats of the trees but they may help. You can purchase baffles or make your own.
• Suspend your feeders from a horizontal line. Thread the line through several lengths of plastic tubing. The plastic tubing should spin when the squirrel tries to walk across it.
• Buy a “squirrel-proof” bird feeder. Many of these feeders are made of strong metal or have metal wire around it to exclude animals like squirrels while allowing smaller birds access. Again, hungry squirrels have been known to find ways to get to the seed even when feeders are designed to keep them out.
• Change the type of seed you offer in your bird feeders. If you have problems with squirrels, choose safflower and nyjer or thistle seeds. Safflower is enjoyed by birds like cardinals, some native sparrows and doves. Nyjer or thistle seeds are enjoyed by small finches like American Goldfinch, Pine Siskins and more.
What not to do:
• Do not coat poles or trees with sticky substances, petroleum jelly, grease or oil to keep squirrels from climbing them. These products mat down the hair of squirrels and other wildlife. This exposes the animals to freezing temperatures.
• Do not provide food with the intent of feeding squirrels. When squirrels gather to feed in an area, they can pass sarcoptic mange mites between each other. Squirrels with these mites lose their hair and have a crusty appearance to their skin. Well-fed squirrels are also reported to take over available nesting areas and are more likely to enter structures.
• Do not hand-feed squirrels. Hand-fed squirrels may lose their fear of humans and become aggressive when they don’t get the food they expected.
SQUIRRELS IN THE LANDSCAPE
It is nearly impossible to keep squirrels out of large areas, including your yard. Many trees and shrubs provide food and shelter for wildlife — like squirrels — if you build it, they will come. Here are some tips to prevent damage:
Clipping and stripping: Squirrels clip off twigs from trees most often in spring and in early fall. Fortunately, most of this damage does little permanent harm to a tree and is more of a nuisance to the homeowner cleaning up the twigs. Squirrels will also strip bark off of deciduous trees in winter and early spring.
• Install a metal collar around trees. Keep in mind that if squirrels can still access the tree by jumping from another tree, wire or building, the collar won’t make a difference. If it makes sense to install a collar, metal collars should be 2-feet wide and placed 6–8 feet above the ground. The edges of the collar should overlap and springs should be used so the trees can continue to grow.
Gardens and potted plants: It is difficult to keep squirrels out of entire gardens. Focus your efforts on what you can manage.
• Protect individual or smaller groupings of plants with 1/2-inch wire mesh fencing. You can make wire cylinders to go around plants or wire cages and frames to put over plants.
• To prevent squirrels from digging out bulbs and seeds, newly planted areas can be protected with 1-inch chicken wire laid over the top and staked down.
• Temporarily drape 1/2-inch wire fencing over potted plants or try moving pots to another location.
• Try a taste repellent to discourage squirrels from seeds, bulbs or plants that aren’t for human consumption. Check with your local garden center, local retail store, or favorite online source for these products. Always follow label directions when using a repellent product.
• Plant enough crops for you and the squirrels to enjoy.
Squirrels gnawing on a variety of items including metal: Sometimes squirrels gnaw on fences, the bottom of doors, edges of garages, gutters, downspouts, railings, decks and porches. Obviously, they aren’t trying to eat any of these items, so this is more likely territorial marking.
• If you can, install metal flashing over the area where the squirrels have been gnawing to discourage further damage.
• Use a commercial repellent on the area with damage and in a 12-inch area around the damage. Follow the directions on the product and repeat as indicated on the package.
• If squirrels are damaging lawn furniture cushions, store the cushions indoors or in a safe location when you aren’t using them.
• If damage is substantial, work with a pest control professional to trap the offending squirrel(s).
• Vehicles parked for a long period of time or in the same location during the day have been known to be damaged by squirrels when they chew on the wiring. If possible, park vehicles indoors in a garage. If you don’t have a garage, move your vehicle regularly or park it in another location. Work with a pest control professional to trap the squirrel(s) causing the damage.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
• The Nebraska Extension Wildlife website has resources, including a NebGuide “Control of Tree Squirrel Damage” (G1924), at https://wildlife.unl.edu
• Cornell Cooperative Extension’s The Wild Harvest Table website has recipes with squirrel meat at http://www.wildharvesttable.com
By Soni Cochran, Extension Associate, Lancaster County