The Ethics of Anti-Squirrel Bird Feeders

Today is Easter, and in
keeping with the tone of that holiday, I thought I’d look at something a little
lighter for a change:  the ethics of
squirrel-preventing bird feeders.

First, we identify the cast
of characters.  There’s the people who
like to provide food for birds, in exchange for getting to watch the birds
feed.  Next, there’s the birds, who don’t
really have a downside in this deal, except when the squirrels get into the act
and make less food available for the birds. 
Third, there are the squirrels, who have to eat too, and are not to blame
for the fact that watching them eat is a lot less interesting to people than
watching birds eat.  And fourth, there
are the companies and individuals who make bird feeders and exercise their ingenuity
to make sure birds get the seed and squirrels don’t. 

Maybe you haven’t given the
slightest thought in your adult life to birds or bird feeders.  But believe me, folks have been trying to
come up with ways to stop squirrels from filching from bird feeders for
decades, if not centuries.  A physics
professor named Rhett Allain who blogs on the Wired website about
physics in ordinary life came across a particularly clever technique.  It’s a feeder put out by a company called
Droll Yankees.  For the most part, it
looks like an ordinary transparent-plastic-tube bird feeder, with openings for
the birdseed at the bottom and a round wire perch below that for the birds to
sit on as they eat—that is, birds who don’t weigh as much as your average
squirrel.  Because when a squirrel
exercises his athletic prowess to climb down the rope that the feeder hangs on
and puts his weight on the perch to get in position for a meal, the increased downward
force on the perch flips a switch that goes to a battery-powered motor.  And all of a sudden, the squirrel finds
himself on a merry-go-round like the one that goes out of control at the end of
Hitchcock’s “Strangers On a Train.” 

For the animal-rights fans
among their customer base, the Droll Yankees say their contraption “gently
spins squirrels off the perch.”  Allain
found a clip taken by a satisfied customer of an unusually persistent squirrel,
though, and you can view it here to judge whether the word “gently”
is appropriate.  I don’t think the
squirrel suffered any permanent damage, but he probably had a bad case of
vertigo for a while.

I have had my own problems
with birdseed-thieving squirrels.  Years
ago, while we were living in New England, I had my own idea about how to fix
the problem.  We bought the same general
kind of plastic-tube feeder that Droll Yankees sells, and hung outside our
kitchen window.  This one had openings at
a couple of levels, and little aluminum rods sticking out beneath the openings
for birds to perch on.  Well, the space
between the upper and lower rods was just enough for a squirrel to grab onto
with his front legs on the upper one and his back legs on the lower one while
he stuffed his face with illicit birdfood. 

We tried the usual passive
things first.  A conical metal hat kind of
thing hung onto the rope above the feeder was supposed to make the squirrel
slide off, but he managed to swing inward while falling and catch onto the
feeder anyway. 

Looking at those rods one
day, I had a thought.  Being an
electrical engineer, my thoughts naturally ran along electrical directions, and
I recalled how one of Thomas Edison’s first (non-patented) inventions was inspired
by a roach-infested telegraph office he worked in.  Availing himself of the 150 volts or so that
was used to energize long telegraph lines, he rigged up a pair of copper
patches along a favorite roach pathway and awaited results.  Sure enough, once the roach completed the
circuit, his career was at an end.

I had no desire for fried
squirrel meat, so I dug around in the basement until I found a couple of
transformers left over from the time a previous owner had installed the only
innovative things Ma Bell ever did for consumers in the 1960s:  Princess telephones.  The phones had a little pilot light that ran
off a low-power transformer that you plugged in the wall, and though the
telephones themselves were long gone, the transformers were still there in the

The secondary voltage was
only 6 volts AC or so, and by running this low-voltage power from one
transformer out through a pushbutton switch by the kitchen window and over to
the tree and onto the bird feeder, I was not endangering the house with
high-voltage wiring.  But on top of the
feeder, I placed the second transformer to step the voltage back up to 120, and
ran one wire to each of the two poles. 
You see the trend of my thoughts now. 
The current was only a few milliamps, not enough to damage the squirrel,
but enough to get his attention.

This was in the days before
cellphone cameras (or cellphones, for that matter), but it brought a glow to my
wicked heart to watch the squirrel clamber down along the rope, slide past the
cone, and position himself for a nice repast, only to get the surprise of his
life when I pushed the button.  He
decided it was time to leave, and not by climbing up the rope either. 

The drawback of this system,
of course, was that you had to stand at the window and guard the feeder, or
else the squirrels would just come back when you weren’t watching.  Squirrels don’t take to training very well,
and so while my system had great entertainment value, it didn’t cut down much
on the loss of birdseed to squirrels.

I’m out of space, so I will
leave you, gentle reader, to ponder the ethical implications of favoring one
member of the animal species while tormenting another one with centrifugal
force or high voltage.  Here in Texas,
we’ve switched to hummingbird feeders. 
The squirrels aren’t interested in them.

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