Depending on where you live, you may be suffering the unwanted attention of squirrels around your bird feeders. Rodents, vermin, pests – call them what you will, they are a nuisance around bird feeders. So, what can we do to stop squirrels from stealing the bird food? I have heard of using cayenne pepper but, is using cayenne pepper in bird seed a good idea or is it harmful?
Using Cayenne Pepper in bird seed is not harmful to birds at all. People use it in their bird seed feeders to deter squirrels and other rodent pests. This is something recommended by the RSPB. Squirrels in particular cannot deal with the heat of cayenne pepper, so it is an effective way of keeping squirrels off a bird feeder.
How Does Cayenne Pepper Deter Squirrels?
The active ingredient of a cayenne pepper is something called Capsaicin. It is capsaicin that gives the pepper its heat; it is also the ingredient that provides medicinal properties. For example, capsaicin can be used in different forms to help reduce blood pressure, possibly reduce the risk of cancer, relieve pain and more.
The more capsaicin there is in a pepper, the hotter it is. The cayenne pepper is a type of Capsicum annuum, along with other commonly known peppers such as bell peppers, jalapeños, pimientos.
What To Put In Bird Seed To Keep Squirrels Away
Using any kind of chilli derived product in bird seed will help to keep squirrels and other rodents away. Chilli powder, chilli flakes or anything cayenne based should do the trick. I have to say, from reading many forums online about this issue, chilli powder or similar alternatives are the way to go.
When people mention chilli powder in this context it is likely they use something with cayenne pepper in it. Other blends probably contain red pepper. It doesn’t really matter which blend you use, as long as it is hot.
Using Red Pepper Flakes To Keep Squirrels Away
Some people use chilli flakes mixed in their bird seed instead of chilli powder. Flakes have the same effect on squirrels, as they are part of the same plant and give off the same heat.
Top Tip – I picked up this tip from a birding forum. Using a hot chilli oil is better than using chilli flakes. Think about flakes for a second; they are loose, light weight and don’t cling to bird seed. Therefore, their irritant properties may find their way to pets and children in the garden.
Chilli oil will coat seed and stick to it. Chilli oil will still contain the desired heat from the pepper but probably more efficiently that a powder and certainly flakes. Squirrels have been known to eventually tolerate the pain of hot chilli flakes because the free food is worth it.
Can Birds Taste Cayenne Pepper?
It is widely believed that birds do not rely on smell or taste as much as mammals like us and rodents. Many studies and experiments have tried to confirm this beyond all doubt but it is inconclusive as to whether birds can actually smell and taste how we think they do.
It has been shown that birds will happily eat very high concentrations of capsaicin, reaching 20,000 ppm (parts per million). Squirrels, rats and mice in the same study rejected concentrations of just 1 – 10 ppm. Just so you know, the hottest chilli is around 2,000 ppm!
All of this leads to a level of certainty that birds cannot taste cayenne pepper and are not harmed by it.
Why Birds Are Able To Eat Hot Chilli
Interestingly, there is a clever way that nature encourages birds to eat from chilli plants whilst deterring other animals. Its about digestion and germination.
In a study in Arizona, USA, it was found that birds fed happily on spicy chillies while rats and mice avoided them. Observations showed that seeds eaten by birds passed through quite quickly, mostly in tact. Seeds eaten by rodents passed through the other end having been partly broken down by digestive juices.
The reason for this is that birds have very short and quick digestive systems. Mammals take longer to digest food and do it differently. Birds help to spread seeds that can still germinate. mammals are less likely to help.
It is thought that chilli plants have evolved to allow birds to feed on their seed whilst preventing others from doing so. This in turn goes some way to ensure the plant’s survival.
Does Cayenne Pepper Hurt Squirrels?
Whilst we are keen to save our bird seed for, well… the birds, there is concern that cayenne pepper or similar derivatives may harm the squirrels. Most of us bird loving folk care about wildlife and our environment, otherwise, why are we feeding the birds? Right?
Squirrels are very clever creatures that are able to adapt to a constantly changing environment. It won’t matter how many physical ways you try to prevent them climbing and traversing to a bird feeder, they will find a way! But what about the effects of chemical deterrents?
I have found no evidence so far that suggests contact with cayenne or other hot peppers causes any long term suffering or pain to squirrels.
If you would prefer not to use additives that may cause squirrels discomfort, you could try using a squirrel proof bird feeder. Some have cages surrounding the feeder (which I find can be a little ugly) and some work mechanically with the squirrel’s weight shutting off the feeding ports. You can find some really good ones in the range provided by Vine House Farm.
Deter, Don’t Maim
While there is little information available on the effects of cayenne on squirrels, I have found one reference to them harming themselves to stop the irritation caused.
I do not know where the account originates but it mentions how squirrels were gnawing their paws off to stop the pain from the hot pepper. A more humane method to consider is a gradual build up of cayenne in the bird food.
You may find a small amount has little effect at first. As you increase the quantity of cayenne, you will start to see less squirrels at the feeder. At this point, do not increase the quantity as it is probably sufficient to deter at this stage rather than causing significant pain and harm.
Using cayenne pepper in bird seed is a very common method of deterring squirrels from eating all the food. Chilli peppers such as bell, jalapeño and cayenne contain an active ingredient that gives off heat.
Mammals like us and squirrels find it difficult to take this heat but birds are not effected. Using cayenne is a safe way to deter squirrels but be sure to deter, rather than harm them.
Consider using a hot chilli oil instead of powder or flakes, as it will coat the seed and stay in place for longer with the same effect.