Tiny Obstacle Course Built to Keep Squirrels from Bird Feeder

complex wooden obstacle course constructed by former nasa engineer

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

An amateur birder built an obstacle course to keep squirrels from his bird feeder, USA Today reported. Complete with a rope ladder, maze, and spinning platforms, it failed to deter the creatures. Keeping herbivores from your garden isn’t always so complex.

Squirrel in backyard eating
Home gardeners are well aware of how often squirrels dig into home gardens when driven by hunger. Photo by Virginia Blount / Shutterstock

According to USA Today, California resident Mark Rober became an internet sensation when a video of his homemade, squirrel-challenging, American Ninja WarriorTM-style course went viral on YouTube. “Rober started the project eight weeks ago when he took to birdwatching in his Bay Area, California backyard,” the article said. “When the squirrels brilliantly and acrobatically broke into even the most anti-squirrel feeding device, he let the Squirrel Games begin.”

All kinds of unwanted creatures manage to find their way into home gardens, but other measures of keeping them at bay don’t require as much craftsmanship as an obstacle course.

Squirrel Aversion without Carpentry

“Those of you who like to plant tulips or daffodils or any of these things that are lovely spring bulbs, you probably get really frustrated when the squirrels go out there and dig them up for you and take a few bites and then put it aside, because they really don’t taste very good,” said Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott, Extension Specialist in Urban Horticulture and an Associate Professor of Horticulture at Washington State University.

“If you provide them with something that they do like, for instance peanuts or sunflower seeds or something else that’s more akin to being squirrel food, they will pretty much leave your bulbs alone. They’re hungry—they’re looking for food, especially in the spring, there’s not many other natural resources available yet, so they’re going to be out digging up whatever you’ve planted.”

Dr. Chalker-Scott said there are also other methods for keeping pests like squirrels away that aren’t too labor-intensive. First and foremost is fencing off any area you don’t want animals to enter, although there are different recommended fencing setups for different species—for example, deer and rabbits. However, modifying the behavior of pests is also a worthwhile avenue to consider.

Behavior Modification

According to Dr. Chalker-Scott, a number of animal behaviors can be modified to keep animals away from your garden. The first idea is to scare them away with items called startle inducers.

“There’s things that will shock them because they’ll move; scarecrows are a classic example,” she said. “Things that move are better—so, these motion detector sprinklers and lights that come on when something moves, those will induce a startle response. However […] if animals are hungry enough, they’re still going to come in and feed on your landscape. It’s a feeding pressure issue.”

There are also ways to convince animals to stay away without exactly startling them. Dr. Chalker-Scott said that some natural products can be used as deterrents or repellants to get the job done, including some that prey on a phenomenon called neophobia. Neophobia, she said, is upsetting or scaring an animal with something simply because it’s different and new.

“Materials that are made from processed meat—and this might be meat meal or bone meal—these are things that might work in terms of scaring off something that is aware of what it is,” she said. “They can smell it and it will scare them away. You can also consider the conditioned aversion response—so giving them something that will upset their stomach if they eat it.

“It wouldn’t kill them, because we’re not looking to kill them; we’re looking to make them ill so they choose something else to eat.”

She also recommended using something in the garden that has capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili peppers, which may make their eyes water and convince them to go find something else. There’s also blood meal, which is harmless, but tastes terrible to herbivores, and it should also lead them to find a different source of food.

And if all else fails, there’s always a squirrel-sized American Ninja Warrior-style obstacle courses.

Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott contributed to this article. Dr. Chalker-Scott is an Extension Specialist in Urban Horticulture and an Associate Professor of Horticulture at Washington State University. She received her Ph.D. in Horticulture from Oregon State University, focusing on environmental stress physiology of woody plants.