Tricked out: Tips for keeping squirrels and raccoons out of the bird feeder

Northern cardinal and American goldfinch dining at Native Nurseries’ squirrel and raccoon proof feeder.   (Photo: Jody Walthall)

Northern cardinal and American goldfinch dining at Native Nurseries’ squirrel and raccoon proof feeder. (Photo: Jody Walthall)

Every yard and home is different, each presenting unique challenges for optimal bird feeder location. First select the window best suited for viewing birds and then go outdoors to evaluate your landscape and how it may impact your choice of protecting your feeder from “tree rats” and “masked bandits.”

There are three main methods for mounting your bird feeder; hang on a shepherd’s hook, hang in a tree, or place on top of a pole. A shepherd’s hook may be the easiest but is the most difficult to make squirrel/raccoon proof. Usually the pole is too short, or the hook is too close to the pole, allowing squirrels to hold on to the pole with their hind feet and rake out seed with their front feet even on a supposedly squirrel proof feeder.

Hanging your feeder in a tree may present its own problems because limbs may be too close to the feeder. If limbs are nearby, select a feeder that closes when a squirrel puts its weight on it.

If your tree is large and rather open, you may be able to hang it with six to eight feet of fine wire. A large dome shaped squirrel guard may help, but only if nearby limbs are no closer than seven feet, since squirrels can jump six feet horizontally. None of the above may prevent a raccoon from accessing the feeder.

The third method of protecting a feeder is my favorite. Placing the feeder on top of an easily installed metal pole with a raccoon baffle below it is very effective against squirrels and raccoons. A plastic tray or short stove pipe type baffles may be effective against squirrels, but if you have neighborhood raccoons, these baffles can easily be defeated by them.

You may use a seven-foot pole with multiple arms extending from which to hang feeders. On the pole, place a stove pipe type raccoon baffle, the top of which must be four feet above the ground to prevent squirrels from leaping above it to the pole.

At my home I use a metal pole with a stove pipe type raccoon baffle. Sitting on top of the baffle is a wooden platform feeder. Twelve inches above the platform is a plastic tray feeder and from the center of it a tube type feeder. The tube is filled with a blend of black oil sunflower, sunflower chips (no hulls), and safflower seed.

These seeds are preferred by chickadees, titmice, goldfinch, and white breasted nuthatch. The plastic tray has sunflower chips, peanut halves, and white proso millet. Cardinals love the sunflower chips, along with mourning dove and pine warblers (in winter). Blue jays and titmice eat the peanut halves, which also have drawn a regular summer tanager.

The wooden tray has white proso millet and suet cakes. In winter, ten chipping sparrows may be perched on the tray, eating the millet. Woodpeckers – downy and red-bellied – yellow-rumped warblers, yellow-throated warblers, Baltimore orioles, and a ruby-crowned kinglet go for the suet, a mixture of beef kidney fat and coarse cornmeal. This tray has a retractable metal screen bottom for easy cleaning.

All feeders must be cleaned regularly for the health of the birds.

Though I prefer the low-tech exclusion techniques to keep the squirrels and raccoons off my feeders, there are many other feeders on the market. They may involve battery powered motors that, when activated by a squirrel’s weight, spin the feeder perches and throw the squirrel off.

These products involve all the complications of charging batteries and motors that may burn out and are costly to replace. This approach still does not address the problem of raccoons that can damage the feeder or drag it out into the woods where it can eat in private.

Since I have spent a few hundred dollars repairing squirrel damage to my house the last two years, I try not to encourage squirrels by giving them extra food. I used to spread white proso millet on our patio in the winter for the sparrows and squirrels, but not anymore!

Intentional feeding of raccoons is against the law in Florida. The danger of rabies is a real threat to humans from raccoon contact. Squirrels and raccoons benefit from the trees we plant in our yards and the habitat we develop over time in our neighborhoods. It is best not to feed them.

A raccoon baffle may cost $50 to $60, but if you are handy you could build your own out of stove pipe.

Evaluate your bird feeding situation and get the option that suits you best. It may seem like a high initial investment, but it will pay off many times over on savings in birdseed or home repair!

Garden To Table: French Sorrel

French sorrel is an easy to grow perennial that prefers moist, rich soil, afternoon shade and looks great in both beds and containers. Sorrel thrives throughout the cool season, but the summer can sometimes be tough with the onslaught of caterpillars and scorching hot sun. Use safe and effective bacillus thuringiensis in the form of Dipel dust or liquid Thuricide to keep the caterpillars in check, and provide a spot in the garden with moist, rich soil and afternoon shade to protect from the summer sun.

A low-growing clump of bright green leaves, French sorrel has long been a staple of European cuisine and is just beginning to get the recognition it deserves here in the States. Its prize feature is its tangy-lemony flavor. The fresh, young greens add a zesty tang when chopped finely and added to a salad. The larger leaves make terrific additions to sandwiches, soups, sauces, and a surprisingly delectable pesto (recipe below). Be sure to cut the mid-rib out of the larger leaves before cooking or using fresh. Fold those large leaves in half and cut the fleshy leaves away from the mid-rib.

For centuries in England, a thick green sorrel sauce has been used to accompany fish, veal and lamb. A more delicate version made with butter and cream adds a delightful lemony essence to baked fish or chicken. Or try steaming spinach and sorrel together and serving them topped with melted butter and chopped scallions.

By far the most delicious sorrel dish I’ve tried is the delectable French Sorrel Soup. It boasts the delightful lemony tang typical to sorrel, but also has a surprisingly rich depth of flavor that is purely addictive. I recently planted three additional clumps of sorrel so I can enjoy these scrumptious dishes more often.


French Sorrel Soup

Ingredients:

5 medium potatoes, peeled & chopped
1 medium onions, chopped
2 green onions, chopped
4 cups stock, veggie or chicken
1 good size bunch of sorrel, midribs removed and thinly sliced
1 T fresh thyme, finely chopped
2 T fresh marjoram, finely chopped
2 T fresh parsley, finely chopped

Method:

Saute the onions in 1/4 stick of margarine (or coconut oil) in a large pot, add the sliced sorrel and toss until wilted. Add the potatoes, stock and thyme. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the marjoram and parsley, also salt and pepper if desired. Puree in batches in a blender. Return to a simmer. Optional to serve with freshly grated nutmeg or grated cheese.


Sorrel Pesto

Ingredients:

2 C fresh sorrel
1 garlic clove
3 T cashews
¼ C parmesan cheese
¼ C olive oil

Method:

Combine basil, garlic, nuts and cheese in food processor or blender, puree to form a paste; slowly add olive oil while blending. You may substitute pecans, walnuts, almonds or cashews for pine nuts.

Strategies for successful tree planting this winter

When I plant a tree, I expect it to be there for 100 years… or more! That doesn’t always happen. We planted a tulip poplar in 1979 and it grew beautifully into an 80-foot tree but was blown down, completely uprooted, during Hurricane Michael. In retrospect, I believe the tree would still be standing if we had not planted it in the open where it stood all by itself, exposed to Michael’s wind gusts.

We should have planted it a mere 20 feet away at the edge of the existing urban woodland that we maintain along the canopy road on Centerville Road. The trees clustered together in this piece of woods – winged elm, swamp chestnut oak, black cherry, live oak – all stood together, protecting each other.

Choosing a tree

There are so many trees from which to choose. When you visit a plant nursery, have an idea of the amount of sunshine you have in your yard and how large you would like the tree to grow in the future.

Also, dig down into the soil and be able to describe the texture of the soil – very sandy, heavy clay, loamy clay, rich dark soil, and so on. Does the spot where you want to plant collect water after rainfall? Different trees have different soil, moisture, and light requirements.

A guide to proper tree planting. Illustration by Native Nurseries of Tallahassee. (Photo: Native Nurseries)

A guide to proper tree planting. Illustration by Native Nurseries of Tallahassee. (Photo: Native Nurseries)

Planting a tree

By far the biggest mistake people make in tree planting is digging a hole too deep and burying the roots too deeply. This will cause the tree to decline over time and eventually die. Dig a very wide but shallow hole, only deep enough so the root ball is planted slightly higher than the ground.

Unfortunately, this problem is exacerbated by the sometimes shoddy work that happens at some wholesale nurseries. Often the trees are planted too deeply in the pots when transplanted from small pots to larger pots.

It is very important to scrape the soil away from the top of the root ball until you reach the first side root of the tree. There may be an inch or even two of soil to remove depending on how many times the tree has been transplanted during the growing process. The root flare should be placed slightly above the ground level.

Volunteers helped plant more than 165 trees in the Apalachee Regional Park in honor of Arbor Day. (Photo: Courtesy Leon County)

Volunteers helped plant more than 165 trees in the Apalachee Regional Park in honor of Arbor Day. (Photo: Courtesy Leon County)

The best time to plant a tree is during winter. Florida’s Arbor Day is always scheduled in the prime planting time of January. Trees are dormant in winter and will not require as much watering as ones planted in the warmer months.

We often think that bigger is better, but in the case of trees, I believe you can achieve greater success by planting smaller trees. I have noticed that bare root seedlings of native trees when planted in winter are particularly robust. Their roots have never been confined in containers. Younger trees in three-gallon containers and seven-gallon containers have had less time to become root bound and, when planted correctly, grow very quickly.

What do scientists have to say about this? Researchers at the University of Florida advise that if irrigation cannot be provided for the recommended period after planting, smaller nursery stock should be planted to ensure survival. UF also reports that because small trees establish more quickly, they are better able to compete with weeds and they become wind-firm sooner than larger nursery stock, which is important in storms.

Another mistake many folks make is piling pine straw or leaf mulch up around the trunk of the tree. Use a four foot diameter of mulch, but keep it away from the trunk to avoid causing fungus issues. If you use a maintenance service, hold them accountable if they weed whack the base of the trunk. Spread enough mulch around the tree to keep mowers away from the trunk.

Water is important for success. Water regularly, several times per week if possible in the heat of the first summer, then move towards once per week, and then as needed. The tree will need to be watered through droughts for the first few years until it becomes established.

As more development occurs in Leon County, consider choosing native trees, especially if you are concerned about habitat for birds and other wildlife. The latest research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and reported on Smithsonian.com, shows how quickly songbird populations fall off when neighborhoods are planted primarily with non-native trees and shrubs.

Native plants produce many more caterpillars and other insects which birds feed their young. The study concluded that in areas made up of less than 70 percent native plants, Carolina chickadees will not produce enough young to sustain their populations. At 70 percent or higher, the birds can thrive.

Something you can do at home to affect positive ecological change is to plant native trees and shrubs. This does not mean that everything in your yard must be native.

In our yard we try to increase the percentage of native plants every year. When the old rose of Sharon aged out and died, we replaced it with a blue beech tree. When we removed all the invasive nandinas, we replaced them with Florida anise, agarista, needle palm, bluestem palmetto and American beautyberry.

One section of sunny lawn became a butterfly pollinator garden. What was once 100 percent non-native (except for the pines and oaks), 27 years later is closer to 90 percent native. The Carolina chickadees are very happy!