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Squirrel-Proofing the Bird Feeder Is the Best Option

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Question: A squirrel is pigging out on the seed in my bird feeders. I ordered some capsaicin red chili powder, which is supposed to be repulsive to mammals but not to birds. It made me miserable mixing it up with the seed, but the squirrel ate it and loved it. I’m told cyanide-laced “blue oats” will kill the squirrel but not the birds, but I’m afraid to try it. Any advice? J.K.

Westwood

Answer: I doubt the squirrel loved the capsaicin powder. As you noticed, it’s nasty, strong stuff. Chances are the squirrel’s hunger outweighed his taste buds.

Incidentally, capsaicin is the active ingredient found in the little spray bottles carried by many mail carriers to ward off attacking dogs. It’s so powerful, in fact, that it’s also used to repel bears and moose in cities wilder than our own.

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Wildlife researchers have discovered that irritants like capsaican work along taxonomic lines, which means that animals from similar groups will have the same reaction to it. Mammals (you, the mail carrier, the bear and the squirrel) should dislike it while birds aren’t affected by it.

Unfortunately, however, science also tells us that taste is rarely an effective deterrent unless there’s an equally or more delicious alternate source of food nearby. As it turns out, smell can be a more powerful motivator with some animal groups.

But since there are no good products on the market to repel squirrels’ olfactory sensibilities, and you probably don’t want to set up a feeder just for the squirrels, give some thought to purchasing a squirrel-proof bird feeder.

According to Bill Thompson III, editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest, the Mandarin feeder (also referred to as the Fort Knox of bird feeders) is as good as any on the market. But he warns that virtually all squirrel-proof feeders can at one time or another fail to outwit the most intrepid squirrels.

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The company that manufactures these feeders, Arundale Products, also makes a baffle to hang above an existing feeder. Company representatives tell me there is a lifetime warranty against squirrel damages on their products. You can order online at https://www.skycafe.com or by phone at (800) 866-2473.

Thompson also recommends another industry bestseller, Heritage Farms’ Absolute Feeder. To take a look at the Absolute Feeder, check out its Web site at https://www.centurytoolmfg.com. To place an order, call (800) 845-2473 and have it shipped or ask for the retailer nearest to you.

As for the poison oats, forget it. Poisons are messy, ugly and should be left to professionals dealing with more complex pest problems.

Goats in the Garden? Probably Just Opossums

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Q: Are opossums considered garden pests? Do they eat beets or other garden vegetables? What do they normally eat?

R.B.

Los Angeles

A: An opossum’s garden social status depends on whom you talk to. Typically, serious gardeners tend to dislike opossums because of their consumptive habits. Meals regularly include bugs, carrion, eggs, pet food, vegetables and fruit, even garbage.

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In fact, short of eating cans, opossums eat as though they were the marsupial equivalent of a goat, which can be a major annoyance.

Conversely, legions of homeowners love opossums, and they can cite their good qualities. For instance, its fur, despite its rough appearance, can be super soft. Its disposition is generally mild. The ferocious hissing and spitting, followed by that well-known feigning death posture are all a put-on. Unless they’re defending infants, count on an opossum to run if given the chance.

Pesky Cats and Crows Are Tough to Deter

Q: Do you know any way to keep cats and crows out of our backyard? Years ago the crows would fly over us going north in the morning and back again in the afternoon. Now they keep us company all day. The cat problem is the same old thing. They haven’t learned how to use their own backyards for their toilets.

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R.B.

Winnetka

A: As you may know, crows are smarter than your average bird. In a few studies, they’ve even counted better than my preschooler. If they’re in your yard during the day, there’s a good reason.

As for why the crows are stopping in your yard instead of moving on as they did in the past, here are some thoughts:

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During the fall and winter, crows flock together in increasingly large groups at night to roost. These roosts are frequently in well-lighted, commercial areas with lots of asphalt, traffic and noise, which scientists believe may keep the roost warmer and help the crows see possible attacks from predators like owls.

These roosts can have thousands of birds, so it follows that there’s more competition for food during the day. The birds then have to spread out farther to find it.

Assuming you’re correct and the birds overhead were moving from their night roost to a feeding area, it makes sense that they’d stop to feed closer, namely in your yard, if there were food and no significant threats. Or perhaps their old feeding ground has irrevocably changed and doesn’t provide the same food source it once did.

After all, why wouldn’t the crows prefer to eat more and fly less? If you’re a Darwinian, you’ll see that it may improve their chances for making it through winter, finding a mate and, ultimately, reproducing and perpetuating their own family line.

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As for the cats, well, cats are tidy little things that dislike dirtying their own “space.”

Sadly for you, these two creatures are not only smart but spry. As readers with cat and crow troubles know, keeping them out of a large area like a yard can be a major undertaking. So rather than advise 101 ways to battle them, I’m going to defer to what works in my yard--my dog.

Gretel, a true mutt, stays in the yard during the day and sleeps inside at night. The moment a crow or cat gets close to stepping into the yard, she’s off, tearing across the yard with her tail up and lungs bursting. The consequence is that crows and cats don’t stay in my yard more than 30 seconds, a veritable feat since my neighborhood has plenty of both.

It’s not an exciting or modern or fancy solution. But since it works, who’s to argue?

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However, owning a pet is a big commitment, both financially and emotionally. Please be sure you’re up to the responsibility and remember that there’s nothing sadder than seeing an unloved dog attached to a chain all day long.

Don’t forget to check your local animal shelter first. They’ve got some of the best pets around.

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Got critter conflicts? Send your queries to wildlife biologist Andrea Kitay at P. O. Box 2489, Camarillo, CA 93011, or via e-mail to andrea@livingwithwildlife.com. Please include your name and city. Questions cannot be answered individually.

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