Bird feeding is a big business. There are all sorts of feeders to match every kind of taste and requirement. Thistle feeders are the favorite of goldfinches — only goldfinches and pine siskins can figure out how to feed upside down, which eliminates all the other birds who might like thistle, but have too hearty an appetite for the expensiveseed. Woodpeckers love suet feeders. Large capacity feeders are helpful so you don’t have to fill them every day. Fly through feeders appeal to birds who like a clear escape route (i.e. ALL birds). Cardinals like platform feeders. Chickadees, titmice, and bluejays love peanut feeders. Feeders with a cage keep out large birds like starlings and grackles who are boisterous, messy and eat ALOT.
There is also an entire sub-genre called “Squirrel Proof” feeders. These are clever devices that use all manner of tricks to thwart the considerable efforts of squirrels, who love to eat birdseed. The simplest are baffles — usually plastic shields that prevent squirrels from climbing up a pole or down a rope. Unfortunately, baffles are effective only for a short time, just until the squirrels either figure out how to jump over them or chew through them. Many squirrel proof feeders employ some sort of lever to close off access to the seed under the weight of a squirrel. These are fairly effective, although I’ve known some squirrels who managed to decipher just the right combination of moves to gain access by pushing with a back foot while reaching with a front foot. There’s a feeder called “The Yankee Flipper” that spins whenever a squirrel steps on it— flinging the offender off in a violent arc.
I saw a disturbing video of this feeder in action…the squirrel didn’t get thrown off right away and was spun round and round for an uncomfortable length of time. I’m not sure if the poor little guy had a claw stuck or what…but it did not seem very humane. I wish Droll Yankee would discontinue that model. It must be a popular seller although it’s pricey at$165. I’ve known senior citizens who trap squirrels then release them in a park or another part of town far from their property. I’ve known others who’ve tried feeding hot peppers mixed in with the bird seed. Such energy and effort expended to thwart cute, little furry animals who show such ingenuity and determination!
Denis Cleary, former manager of the Scherman Hoffman Sanctuary store and my NJ Audubon colleague, is an expert on bird feeders. Back in the day when I was a naturalist, I would accompany Denis on Bird Feeder Workshops, usually offered in retirement communities. I prepared a slide show of twenty-five or so common bird species that might come to a feeder. Denis brought samples of all the various feeders and spoke at length about the advantages and disadvantages of each. By far, it was the squirrel-proof feeders that generated the most excitement. We heard story after story of how those “rotten” squirrels stole birdseed from the birds. They would get visibly angry; their faces turned red and they raised their voices. One man was so upset, veins stood out in his neck as he recounted how “one of the little ba*t**ds” defeated an intricate maze of baffles and wires he had devised, and gorged himself all day on the sunflower seeds meant for the birds. Denis and I were concerned the man might have a stroke, so we tried to change the subject. To no avail. He left with his blood pressure still soaring and a new squirrel proof feeder under his arm.
At the end of the day our message was always the same: If you’re going to feed birds, you may as well learn to love the squirrels. It’s sort of a variation on “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Best to try and slow them down a bit and make them work for their food, rather than try and eliminate them all together. It’s a simple fact: no matter how hard you try, you simply cannot outwit a squirrel when sunflower seeds are involved. And in truth, they’re fun to watch.
Over the last ten years or so, I’ve had the privilege to be involved in several food pantry ministries. Food pantries are efforts led mostly by local churches to provide supplemental food to people in need. It always starts with the noblest, most Christian intentions. After all, Jesus said, “Feed my sheep” and “I was hungry and you gave me food.” A food pantry is a good project that gets lots of people involved and accomplishes the worthy goal of helping hungry people. Everyone feels good and fulfilled after the initial effort to start a food pantry is successful. But after a while, when the luster wears off, stories inevitably emerge among the volunteers about scammers who take advantage of their good intentions. I would hear how someone drove to the food pantry in an expensive car and expected to get free food. And how someone else went to the food pantry in the next town in addition to the local food pantry; a clear violation of the rules. There were complaints about how gift cards given out at Christmas were used to buy cigarettes or coffee or candy or some other unnecessary luxury. Many would try to get more bags of food than they were entitled to. At food pantry meetings, we always seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time on the thieves who were taking food meant for others. Do you know what I’d tell them? “If you’re going to feed the birds, you’ve got to learn to love the squirrels.”
And they would look back at me with blank stares. Or worse, like I had two heads. I don’t think my analogy worked even once for those frustrated food pantry volunteers. I would tell them the story of the bird-feeder workshops and the angry senior citizens…and they couldn’t see my point. Why was I talking about squirrels when low-lifes were stealing food from those in need? One or two even took up for the angry senior citizens and chimed in with their own frustrations about the squirrels in their yard. Then they would return to the problem of food frauds. “What are we going to do about this?” they’d demand.
When we show kindness, when we offer a gift, there is no cosmic rule that says it must only go to the intended recipient. In fact, in Exodus, God says to Moses, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” and in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, the landowner says, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
No. Clearly the better policy is to love the squirrels.