Blue Ridge Naturalist: Baffling Mammals

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by Marlene Condon

The “Raccoon Guard” baffle is excellent for keeping mammals from getting into bird feeders. (Photo: Marlene A. Condon)
The “Raccoon Guard” baffle is excellent for keeping mammals from getting into bird feeders. (Photo: Marlene A. Condon)

Many folks are putting out seeds for birds at this time of year.  However, birds may not be the only wildlife wanting to partake of your offerings.

Gray squirrels, southern flying squirrels, white-footed and deer mice, eastern chipmunks, common raccoons, gray and red foxes, Virginia opossums, and even white-tailed deer enjoy eating birdseed too, especially sunflower seeds.  Although there’s no problem with these mammals scavenging seeds that the birds have dropped (someone has to eat them!), you would go broke if you allowed all of these larger critters to get food directly from your feeders.

The most sensible way to keep mammals from raiding your seed supply is to place your feeders on poles.  Poles must be placed away from plants and buildings so that agile animals, such as squirrels, will not be able to jump directly onto the feeder.

Gray squirrels, the most common birdfeeder visitors, can jump almost eight feet horizontally.  Therefore you should not place your pole within eight feet of trees, bushes, or any structures from which a squirrel can launch itself.

When you employ a pole to hold your feeder, you need to place a baffle on it to keep mammals from just climbing right up the pole to the feeder.  The baffle should be placed at least five feet above the ground on the pole; otherwise a squirrel may be able to jump over it.

Occasionally you may get a squirrel that can jump higher and farther than most, or a raccoon that is bigger than most and can access the feeder.  If this happens, you may have to make adjustments in the width of the baffle you’re using or in how far away you place the pole from other objects.

Baffles are usually round or hemispherical and made of plastic.  I’ve found that the minimum size that works is one with an eighteen-inch diameter.  A gray squirrel is usually able to get around one smaller than that.

Baffles that are constructed of thicker plastic are more durable and less easily broken than those made of thin plastic, so it’s worth the extra cost to buy the better baffle.  Or you may want to construct your own cylindrical stove-pipe baffle out of thin sheet metal that can work well.

My plastic baffles worked well for a decade.  But then a raccoon started visiting that was able to get around them.  Luckily, I found a “Raccoon Guard” for sale in a catalog.

It was expensive, but it worked so well that I eventually ended up buying a few more.  It not only keeps raccoons from the feeders but also squirrels and even bears!  (My poles are extra tall to keep American Black Bears—which can reach 6 feet tall on their hind legs—from just reaching up to grab the feeders.)  Thus this type of baffle is the most effective one that I have found.

The Raccoon Guard is a tube 28 inches long and 7½ inches wide.  It’s made of galvanized steel with a weather resistant finish so it lasts much longer than plastic baffles.  I’ve had mine for over 15 years now and they are still in great shape.

I’ve only seen these baffles in two bird catalogs: Duncraft (1-888-879-5095 or www.duncraft.com/Raccoon-Guard) and Audubon Workshop (www.audubonworkshop.com/).

Some people try to deter squirrels by using seeds that are less attractive to them, such as safflower.  However, that stategy will also limit the number of bird species that visit.  Animals have food preferences just as humans do!

Other folks attempt to repel squirrels by adding red pepper to the seeds in the feeder.  Birds do not seem to be sensitive to capsaicin, the ingredient in hot peppers that causes us mammals to suffer intense burning in our mouths when our tissues come into contact with it.  Red pepper is actually packaged for this use, but I would ask that you not buy it.

Some folks think that causing squirrels or other animals to suffer is humorous and justified.  It isn’t.  It’s never kind to deliberately inflict pain upon our wildlife, especially as it’s not necessary.

Additionally, if the pepper gets into the eyes of birds or squirrels, it would cause quite an irritation.  As they struggle to relieve the burning in their eyes, they could be killed by predators.

Lastly, do not EVER use sticky substances on the poles.   If mammals get it on their paws, they will have trouble functioning which means they will have trouble surviving.  Grease or other such gooey substances also kills numerous kinds of wildlife, such as insects that can’t possibly free themselves from it.

Insects play extremely important roles in the environment as pollinators, recyclers, aerators of the soil, and as food for numerous other species.    So please be conscious of the unintended consequences of your actions.