Wondering how to protect your bird feeder from rats and squirrels? We don't blame you: Monty Don, among others, has called upon gardeners everywhere to feed the birds this winter – but many are wary of attracting unwanted pests in the process.
Still, these colder months can be a difficult time for wildlife. And so, when temperatures plummet and food becomes scarce, it's up to us to step out into the garden and offer our feathered friends a helping hand with some smart wildlife garden ideas.
With that in mind, then...
How to protect your bird feeder from rats and squirrels
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag...
If there's one thing we learned from Mary Poppins, it's this: feeding the birds is a small act of kindness that speaks volumes about a person. And it seems Monty Don is in full agreement with the magical flying nanny.
'One of the things I most enjoy about winter is watching the birds feed at the table outside our kitchen window,' writes the gardening guru via his popular blog.
'It may not have the glamour of going on safari or a trip to the Galapagos, but it is just as rewarding and right on every gardener’s doorstep.'
Monty goes on to share a list of calorific foods to treat your garden birds to over the winter months, including seeds, nuts, fat, leftover pastry, bread, rice, fruit, grated cheese, cooked (but not raw) potatoes, dried mealworms, and hanging fat-balls.
It's a delicious-sounding feast. However, as anyone who has ever used a bird feeder or bird table will know already, it's basically guaranteed to attract a rodent (or three) along with the birds...So while we don't want to be looking into how to get rid of rats later down the line, here is how to stop them getting to your birdfeeder in the first place.
So, how can you protect your bird feeder from rats and squirrels? Because, with so many native birds in decline at the moment, it's not an option to stop feeding the birds all together: they need a steady supply of food to keep them going!
1. Get clever with your planting
One of the easiest ways to feed the birds this winter, without having to worry about your bird feeder, is to ramp up the food on offer.
'Ensure that your garden or green space is as wildlife-friendly as possible, with lots of natural food sources,' says Thomas Hibbert, bird expert at The Wildlife Trusts.
'Plant trees and shrubs that produce berries in autumn and winter, leave seedheads for finches, and let areas grow wild to encourage insects.'
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2. Invest in a squirrel-proof feeder
When it comes to figuring out how to protect your bird feeder from rats and squirrels, it's worth noting that there are a number of bird feeders available that are especially designed to do just that.
'If food is really hard to find in your area, you could offer some seeds or suet in a squirrel-proof feeder,' suggests Thomas.
There are a few different options, such as weight-activated, caged and domed.
This highly related feeder uses spring technology to allow birds to feed, but excludes squirrels and other pets. It's made from metal and a chew-proof resin so they've got no way through, either.
These cages feeds are still easy for birds to get their seeds from, but larger squirrels can't get through the heavy duty cage in order to nab a quick meal (smaller, leaner pests might fit, however).
3. Mix up your seed offering
If you're hoping to protect your bird feeder from rats and squirrels, it pays to think outside the box. Because, while they tend to love munching on peanuts and fat balls, they don't love everything that birds eat.
4. Add a little something extra
Another easy way to protect your bird feeder from rats and squirrels? Add something that they really don't want to eat! This works for birdfeeders and for how to stop squirrels from digging up bulbs.
'There are several smells and tastes that rodents don’t like, including cayenne pepper, pepper, peppermint, and garlic,' says Eric Michels, Head of Pro at CJ Wildlife.
'While these smells are unappealing to rodents, birds can’t actually taste them, so sprinkling a little cayenne pepper into your bird feeders, for example, will act as an additional deterrent.'
5. Install feeders out of reach
'Rodents are competent climbers, so they can and will scale trees and poles to access bird feeders,' says Eric.
'Hanging your bird feeders on a sturdy branch higher up the tree will deter them to a degree, as they are less likely to climb in search of food.'
He goes on to add that clinging birds that feed from hanging feeders, such as the Tit family, will also prefer a feeder hung higher up, as it provides extra protection from predators on the ground such as cats and foxes.
6. Don’t scatter feed on the ground
It's always lovely to see birds hopping about on the grass, sure, but it's a surefire recipe for trouble. As such, one of the best ways to protect your bird feeder from rats and squirrels is to avoid the temptation to scatter food underneath it.
'While it may seem like an easy way to provide food for our feathered friends, it will very quickly also encourage rodents into your garden as it acts as a constant supply of accessible food,' says Eric.
'Instead, always make sure you put bird food in a specialist feeder and clear up any spillages when refilling immediately.'
7. Aim for 'just enough' food
It's good to be generous, but it doesn't do to be too generous with your bird food – especially if you want to protect your bird feeder from rats and squirrels.
'It is important you only use the amount of bird food or seed that you know (or estimate) will be eaten by birds within two or three days at most,' says Eric.
'Leaving bird feed out for too long not only means food could spoil and allow bacteria to build up, but having a substantial amount of food constantly available also increases the risk of attracting rodents in search of something to scavenge.'
Thomas adds that you should also 'ensure you clean any feeders regularly to prevent disease' and deter nightime scavengers.
Do we need to feed birds in winter?
Birds remain active all year round, but they can struggle to find food during the winter months.
'When the ground is frozen, natural food sources like worms and insects are even harder to come by, so our feathered friends depend more on bird feeders for vital calories and energy,' says Eric.
'During a single cold night, small birds can lose over 10 per cent of their total body weight simply trying to stay warm, so they will frequent feeders first thing in the morning and last thing before sunset to stock up on energy for the night ahead or to replenish lost fat stores.'
Quite simply, then, it is imperative that we help out our feathered friends over the winter months and keep their bird feeder topped up.
What are the best things to feed birds?
'When it comes to bird food, the choice can be overwhelming. With so many options available, it can be quite difficult to know which is best! But this all depends on the birds you see mostly in your area and what types of foods they prefer,' says Eric.
'To encourage specific species, try providing their favourite meals, for example, tits are predominantly seed-eaters, but in the colder months enjoy tucking into a high-fat food, like suet pellets for extra calories and warmth.'
'Robins eat a wide variety of bird food, including seeds, dried mealworms, nuts, dried fruits, and CJ Wildlife’s Best Robin Blend Seed Mix. Great spotted woodpeckers enjoy peanuts, sunflower seeds, and fat balls, such as the Ultimate Fat Balls, as they contain an array of nutritional and energy-rich ingredients to keep them well throughout the winter.'
A good all-rounder, Eric adds, is a calorie-rich seed mix like, CJ Wildlife’s High Energy No Mess.
'This mixture has been expertly blended to contain nutritious, energy-rich seeds and grains which will keep all species of feathered friends well-fed and energised all year round.'
A fresh supply of water is also key to encouraging birds to the garden, too, even in the winter!
How do I keep squirrels off my bird feeder?
There are plenty of ways to protect your bird feeder from rats and squirrels, such as putting out just enough seed mix, adding in flavours that rodents don't like (such as hot pepper or peppermint), keeping the floor clean, and storing bird feed securely.
You can also invest in a rodent-proof number, such as the popular Guardian with 4-Port Seed Feeder, which provides protection for both birds and their food.
Eric adds that 'CJ Wildlife’s Leto Smart Feeder has built-in technology that allows birds below 70g to perch and feed, but if any creature above 70g sits on the perch, it is weighed down and triggers the opening to be covered, restricting access to the delicious bird food.'
How do you store bird feed?
'Making sure bird feed is stored correctly is important as it will deter unwanted vermin, as well as ensure food holds its nutritional value for birds,' says Eric.
'If rats and mice are able to get to food in your shed or garage, they will keep coming back for more! Always store food in a dry, cool place, in an airtight container with a secure lid, preferably raised off the floor to act as an additional deterrent.'
So, now that you know how to protect your bird feeder from rats and squirrels, it's time to get out there and feed the birds (tuppence a bag!) and help them make it through the cold winter months ahead.
Honestly, the sight of them happily flitting around your garden on a frosty morning will make it more than worth the hassle!
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Kayleigh Dray became Ideal Home’s Acting Content Editor in the spring of 2023, and is very excited to get to work. She joins the team after a decade-long career working as a journalist and editor across a number of leading lifestyle brands, both in-house and as a freelancer.
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