Mary-Kate Mackey Rotating Header Image

19 DAYS TO GO: LIVING WITH THE CRITTERS

Our garden is in the country. Although we have a Eugene, Oregon address, we’re five miles south of town, surrounded by oak groves and Douglas fir woods. This location is shared by, among others, foxes, raccoons—they line up when the grapes are ripe—turkeys, an assortment of songbirds, chipmunks, and squirrels. Getting the garden ready for The Garden Conservancy Open Day on July 7 means I’m constantly devising methods to keep my plants from being rampaged by the animal residents.

Steller’s jays in the gazebo feeder

The conflict centers around the bird feeders and the squirrels. I don’t mind sharing bird food with squirrels, but the problem is that they scatter far more seed than the birds do. The plants below my feeders get trampled by the seed seekers on the ground. I have devised several methods to keep both the non-native gray squirrels and our native Douglas squirrels out of the feeders.

Devices that don’t allow the critters to climb to the top of the pole, while ugly, are usually effective. The torpedo-shaped obstruction hanging on the pole permits the gray squirrels to climb up inside—you see just their tails poking out the bottom—and then they find no place to go.

This feeder is protected by the torpedo that hangs loosely on the pole.

The torpedo foils raccoons as well, mostly because it’s loose on the pole and they’re spooked by the erratic movement. Before we installed it, I came out one night and discovered a raccoon perched on the roof of that gazebo bird feeder, casually reaching under his feet to dine on black oil sunflower seeds.

The witch’s hat, also ugly, and sometimes, ineffective.

My other device, a metal witch’s hat, is mounted on a thinner pole—gray squirrels are too heavy and just slide back down this one—the wide lower edge is supposed to prevent the smaller Douglas squirrels from reaching the feeder. However, it needs adjustment on a regular basis because one squirrel shows great determination to beat the system.

Cheeky wins this round.

There are two Douglas squirrels, but one of them has always been so noticeably bold that I dubbed him Cheeky. I have no evidence of gender for either of them, so we’ve arbitrarily assigned sexes. The other one I call Cheeky’s wife, like Noah’s wife in the Bible who had no name. Cheeky’s wife is properly wild-animal nervous when we approach. But Cheeky hangs out on the deck and the new patio all day long, coming up to investigate my sneakers if I stand still.

We don’t purposely feed them. Cheeky figured out how to climb the pole, surmount the witch’s hat with a little body swing that allowed him to reach around with his front paws and hook the perch on the feeder. Then he neatly hauled himself to food heaven.

Cheeky swings over for lunch.

I keep lowering the hat  so he can’t reach out to the birdfeeder above. But it’s a fine line. If I adjust it too far down, he’ll launch himself above it—he’s a mighty leaper. When the feeder was near the three-foot round Chamaecyparis shrub, he used those wobbly branches to project himself over the witch’s cap. I’ve had to relocate the feeder into more open areas several times.

While I was adjusting the hat this last time, Cheeky stood on his hind legs on the lawn, his head cocked, clearly trying to solve the problem I was presenting. Would he get annoyed and try and bite me? Right now, the height of the cap is working and Cheeky hangs out underneath. However, I’ve learned not to underestimate his smarts and persistence.

Dining in the flat feeder with “Rose Glow’ barberry below

It’s the dropped birdseed that causes the real trouble for plants underneath it. The only place the plants are not destroyed is at the flat feeder. ‘Rose Glow’ barberry bushes grow underneath. The squirrels all jump into that feeder from the branches of the crab apple and eat, rocking it madly with their weight and dumping seed, which falls below but is never wasted. Ground feeders scour the soil clean in the relative safety of those prickly bushes. It’s the perfect system.

With the gazebo feeder, it’s another story. I am growing a tall grass, Calamagrostis‘Karl Foerster’ in the box to at least obscure the pole. I have flowering annuals around that, but everything gets trashed in the hunt for seeds.

Plants in bondage.

So I’ve devised a sort of cage out of hardware cloth and chicken wire. Theoretically, the plants can grow through the raised wire. Right now they’re struggling. When they make it up through they’re a bit worse for wear because they;’re still getting trampled by critters, both birds and squirrels and an occasional chipmunk, walking on the wire. But the tougher lantana and heliotrope seem to be doing the best. No tender-leafed plants need apply.

It helps that I’ve switched from black oil sunflower seeds to the less attractive mixed seed in this feeder. Now the black oil seeds occupy their own container—the one Cheeky lays siege to.

If any of you have successful solutions to this chronic (and chaotic) problem, please let me know. Just like Cheeky himself, I’m willing to entertain all ideas—except to stop feeding the birds; that’s too much of a pleasure. # # # #

One Comment

  1. Linda Carter says:

    Well, you are more than kind to those squirrels! I have grown to refuse to share territory with them, finding them destructive to more than the plants and garden. What the dogs don’t hunt down, I trap and dispose of (manner undisclosed). I do not bother our natives who fear the dogs enough to stay away, but the English cousins are quickly dispatched!
    Look forward to seeing you sometime soon!

Leave a Reply