For the Birds Radio Program: Squirrels

Original Air Date: Nov. 17, 2008 Rerun Dates: Nov. 26, 2010

Squirrels visiting Laura’s balcony feeders prompted her to research squirrels, and how they, and birds, respond to chili peppers.

Duration: 4′34″


I closed down my bird feeders at my Ithaca apartment for a couple of months this summer, and started them up again in September. My Tufted Titmice returned within minutes, and my chickadees came almost immediately after them, along with White-breasted Nuthatches, goldfinches, and my local juncos. And within two days my squirrels were back. My feeders are set up on my upstairs balcony, which is supported by wooden beams, and after the feeders went dry the squirrels disappeared and I never saw them hanging around, but they either pay a lot of attention to bird activity or were checking in now and then from across from the treetops. I’m on a budget so I don’t particularly want to be wasting birdseed on squirrels, but I’m not really interested in doing the things I’d need to do to send them on their way. The way the balcony supports are designed, there are too many places I’d need to put metal baffles to keep them from ascending to mine, and if I did go to that trouble, they could easily climb up my neighbor’s balcony and jump across unless I did the same to their balcony supports. A lot of the feeders designed to exclude squirrels also exclude large birds, and I do like the doves and jays that come in, so that doesn’t seem worth it. My friend Peter Dring forwarded to me a story from England’s Daily Mail Reporter this week telling how to get rid of squirrels with chili powder. The article said, “Rather than erecting barriers, or peering out the window hoping to catch the blighters at it, simply add a dash of chilli powder to the mix. Wildlife experts say that grey squirrels simply detest chilli - but the taste doesn’t bother birds at all.” The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds recommends that seed mixes be thoroughly coated, but not hidden, in the chili powder. They say the best way to do this is to throw the lot in a bag and shake it up. And if there isn’t any chili powder to hand, curry powder, Tabasco, peri-peri sauce, red pepper and cayenne pepper will all do the trick.” If Jane Austen had bird feeders, she didn’t have to worry about squirrels—at least not our good old American Gray Squirrels, but ever since the 19th Century, when our gray squirrels were introduced to the British Isles, they’ve been increasing and multiplying, out-competing and spreading squirrel pox to Britain’s native red squirrels, which, just to confuse things, are not related to our red squirrels. Birds have two or three orders of magnitude fewer taste buds than squirrels do, so it makes sense that things that burn or taste bad to squirrels might not bother birds. But I’ve always been concerned about whether these hot powders might not irritate the tissue of the bird’s throat and esophagus. But just a couple of hours after reading Peter’s email, I came across an interesting reference to a 1992 study by Donald Norman that said the active ingredients in chili peppers, called capsaicins, that hurt the oral epithelia and taste buds of mammals actually attract birds. Wild capsicum fruits, which are high in capsaicins, are high in vitamins, protein, and lipids. Apparently the capsaicins protect pepper seeds from being chewed up and killed by rodents, but encourage birds which swallow the seeds whole and ultimately disperse them.

I don’t know that I’m going to ever start coating my bird seed with chili powder—I still haven’t entirely reassured myself that it’s harmless to bird digestive tissues but I have another concern. After such a horribly contentious election year, it’s going to be hard for many Americans on either side of the divide to come to peaceable terms with the others. I’ll start practicing my new live-and-let-live philosophy on my backyard squirrels.