Thanksgiving weekend, Shannon asked me if we could go to the nursery, closed for the season, and collect pinecones. The weather was beautiful – sunny and warm for late November. Keith, Shannon, I, and the dog spent the afternoon enjoying the outdoors in one of the last truly autumn days we’ve had. While they played with the dog, I cut boughs of white pine, blue spruce, hemlock, yew, juniper, and holly boughs from the fields and woods on the property. Then we all collected a crate of pinecones from beneath the tall white pines that make up windbreaks throughout the nursery.
I planned on using the boughs and berries to decorate our front porch, and in basket arrangements to sell at Baragar Pines Farm.
Shannon wanted the pinecones to make birdfeeders. I’ve taught this project a few times over the years to children’s groups, as well as Shannon and I doing it at home. It’s a simple and quick project that the kids always seem to enjoy ... probably because it’s messy also. (Before getting started, I recommend covering the surface you’ll be working on with newspapers, or a plastic table cloth. I keep a table cloth for just such purposes – it’s easy to wipe clean and store away until the next messy project presents itself.)
Pinecone Bird Feeders
Peanut butter (peanut butter is rich in fat, which birds need especially in winter)
Bowls of birdseed, dried berries, and chopped fruits such as apples. Along with birdseed, we used up the stale Rice Krispies, and mixed in some dried cranberries.
Twine, cut into 1 foot lengths
- Tie the twine securely around the stem end of the cone, weaving it under the top row of scales.
- With the butter knife, smear peanut butter onto the cone, getting plenty into all the nooks and crannies.
- Roll the peanut butter-covered cone in the dishes of birdseed. Jam some of the seeds and berries between the crevices.
That’s it. It’s as easy as 1, 2, 3, and is ready to hang by the twine in a tree.
Tips for repelling squirrels: Squirrels like peanut butter and bird seed. Our neighborhood as an overly large squirrel population, and we’ve had mixed results with the pinecone feeders in the past – sometimes the squirrels will get to the peanut-butter slathered cones before the birds even notice them. This year, we made about twenty feeders, and I wanted to make sure we weren’t just feeding the squirrels. My solution was to use safflower seed instead of black oil sunflower seed as we had in the past. I switched to safflower in the metal feeders a few years ago to detract squirrels, and have had great results. The squirrels, not liking safflower, now leave the feeders to the birds.
Last week we set out to make the feeders. After Shannon spread the peanut butter on the cones, I sprinkled them liberally with powdered hot pepper, before she rolled them in the birdseed. The birds don’t mind the capsaicin, the chemical that gives peppers their heat, but squirrels don’t tolerate it.
Satisfied the cones were squirrel-safe we decorated the spruce tree with them like it was a Christmas tree and waited for the birds to come flocking. The next morning I looked out the window and saw a couple of squirrels in the tree. I let Quetta, our black lab, out to give chase. She never catches them, but she certainly gives them a run for their money. The same thing occurred a couple of times throughout the day, but the squirrels didn’t seem too intent on getting to the feeders. I figured the combination of safflower seed, hot pepper, and a charging dog was doing the trick.
And theoretically it should have worked. Birds can tolerate capsaicin levels as high as 20,000 parts per million. Considering the hottest chili contains a capsaicin level of about 2,000 ppm, it’s a safe bet to conclude they’re insensitive to red pepper. On the other hand, a squirrel’s tolerance is as low as 1 to 10 parts per million. For this reason, you can buy birdseed and suet with capsaicin already added; packets of pure capsaicin powder are often sold right alongside birdseed. A word of caution though, loose powder added to bird seed can be an irritant to birds’ eyes, just has it is to ours. Bound in peanut butter or suet though, it doesn’t bother them in the least.
I couldn’t figure out why the next morning when I looked out the window, the spruce looked as if it was dancing, its slender limbs moving wildly up and down. A horde of hungry marauders was pillaging the feeders! There seemed to be as many squirrel ornaments decorating our outside Christmas tree as there were pinecones hanging from its boughs.
Then I noticed the three crows that visit our yard, watching the squirrels with interest. When one of the squirrels dropped a pinecone after wiggling it free from its branch, a crow moved in quickly and nabbed it off the ground. As he flew off with it, his two companions trailing close behind, I yelled from the window, “Yes! Score one for the birds!”
I didn’t understand though, why the squirrels weren’t deterred by the safflower seed and hot pepper. I was positive they wouldn’t eat safflower seed; they don’t even come near my other feeders anymore. Could it be that the scent of 20 pinecones covered in an entire jar of peanut butter was just too tempting….tempting enough to ignore they were also covered in hot pepper?
I got out the jar of pepper from the cabinet; not having cayenne or hot pepper flakes handy, I’d used chili powder, which after reading the label soon discovered also contained salt, oregano, cumin, and garlic. I sprinkled a little onto my fingertip, and tasted. Salt. I filled my entire hand with it, and licked my palm. Pfft. Nothing. Not even a tiny bit of heat.
Ah, well, I thought: Birds one; squirrels 19.
Then I noticed few dark-eyed juncos pecking at the ground around the spruce. A nuthatch flew to the tree, then flew away to the trunk of a nearby maple…with a seed in its mouth! A few seconds later, a chickadee did the same. The squirrels cared nothing for the cranberries and safflower seeds – they spat out them out or flicked them off the cones, only interested in the peanut butter. Soon a mixed flock of chickadees and nuthatches joined the first two, and along with them brought a couple of downy woodpeckers.
I went outside to sit on the side porch and watch. A female goldfinch perched on the fence trellising the blackberries. She seemed undecided in joining in the commotion. Or maybe it was a male; I have a hard time distinguishing who is who when the males exchange their bright yellow suits for ones of drab olive in winter. Whichever it was, it made one pass at the tree, then flew off in another direction.
A noisy blue jay circled the area, flying from tree to tree in the yard, until he landed in a river birch a few yards from the spruce. Here, he inspected a pine cone left hanging halfway up the tree, presumably left there by a squirrel. Finding it already stripped clean of its goodies, he flew away, scolding whoever robbed him of his treat.
The cardinal couple was content with dinner and a show, watching the spectacle from the pole feeder where they quietly ate without interruption.
Conspicuously absent were the titmice, although they came the following day to be part of the clean-up crew. Along with the chickadees and nuthatches, they gleaned the remaining seed, cereal, berries, and globs of peanut butter that the squirrels left behind littering the branches.
The spruce is bare once again. Only a piece of twine remains hanging on one of its branches evidence of the feasting that took place. There isn’t a pinecone left on the lawn; even the one in the river birch is gone. I wonder where they all went, and who took them. The squirrels? Or were the crows part of the clean-up crew too?
We still have lots of pinecones left to make more feeders. Next time I think we’ll try suet instead of peanut butter – still enticing to squirrels, but maybe less so. And cayenne pepper instead of chili powder – we’re definitely using cayenne pepper.
All in all though, this time around was fun. Quetta had a grand time chasing the squirrels. They definitely ate more than their share of the holiday meal, but there was more than enough to go around, and the birds had plenty. It seemed as if everyone had a nice Christmas.
And I hope you all do too!