We have some fruit trees and they do bear fruit. However, the birds and the squirrels eat the fruit and then leave it half eaten on the ground. I am sure there are many people that have this very same problem. Can you help us all?
Maggie Kamashian, Calabasas
To be absolutely sure your tree crops are protected, you will need to put paper bags around each of your ripening fruit or, alternatively, cover your trees with clear plastic (of the thickness used for painters’ drop cloths) or wire mesh.
There are a variety of strategies for preventing birds and squirrels from harvesting your fruit before you have the opportunity to do so. I must say, however, that other than physical exclusion, it is impossible to guarantee results. Even where wire mesh is concerned, unless it is on the order of 4 mesh galvanized hardware cloth welded, .025 wire diameter, 23 guage, squirrels are likely to bite or bend their way through it.
So let me say from the outset that I would very much like to hear from readers who have been successful in deterring birds or squirrels from eating the fruit from their trees. How did you do it?
Kamashian is correct in identifying squirrel and bird predations of tree fruit as a common problem. Lately, I have received a larger number of emails than usual regarding damage of this sort and I suppose this is due to the continuing drought. The sources of native plant berries and other kinds of forage are much less abundant than usual due to persistent, below average winter rainfall, and therefore less of the wild vegetative growth that would normally sustain hungry birds and squirrels is available.
The principle fruit poacher in our area, the Eastern fox tree squirrel, is an imported creature that arrived here just over a hundred years ago. In 1904, disabled veterans of the Civil War who came from Tennessee to the Sawtelle Veterans’ Home in Los Angeles for long term care, brought their fox squirrels as pets along with them.
Eastern fox squirrels can be domesticated and they will allow you, eventually, to approach them. There is also a native Western gray tree squirrel that, however, is not at all gregarious and will not be persuaded to eat peanuts out of your hand. Since an approachable local squirrel species could not be found, Eastern fox squirrels continued to be brought to California until 1933, when the state issued a ban on their import.
It should also be mentioned that those who kept squirrels as pets generally had a fondness for squirrel stew as well, making their pets, or their pets’ offspring, into potential culinary subjects.
As we now know, pets can be enormously beneficial to soldiers suffering from battle fatigue or PTSD. Today, in fact, at the Veterans Administration hospital in West Los Angeles, which is an expansion of the Sawtelle Veterans’ Home, therapy dogs are commonly used for emotional healing purposes, just as squirrels helped Civil War vets more than a century ago.
So now when you begin to curse the Eastern fox squirrels that devour your fruit, you can at least take solace in the fact that the ancestors of these garden pests were used as a boon to battered, war torn souls.
To keep squirrels and birds out, it makes sense, first of all, not to invite them in. Bird feeders or pet food left outside will attract not only birds and squirrels, but raccoons, opossums, and skunks as well. I know this to be true because I have spotted all of these animals in my own neighborhood where a single well-meaning soul, sympathetically desiring nothing more than to feed stray feline creatures, has attracted a mammalian menagerie of urban wildlife by regularly leaving out bowls of cat food on a front porch.
Gary Bogue, a naturalist in northern California, wrote that he solved his squirrel problem by planting ‘Mammoth Gray’ sunflowers. Squirrels would rather eat seeds than fruit and the giant seedheads of the sunflowers make the squirrels focus on them. “The squirrels live for those sunflowers,” Bogue explained, leaving his succulent strawberries and tomatoes alone.
Squirrels tend to be more bothersome in older neighbors with overhead utility wires. Squirrels visit new neighborhoods, where these wires are underground, less frequently. One strategy for keeping squirrels off utility wires is to thread them through PVC pipe. The slippery PVC makes it impossible for the squirrels to get a footing. Of course, you would want to contact your utility companies before embarking on this project.
Squirrels can jump a distance of six feet. With this in mind, regularly prune tree branches to keep them six feet away from your roof lines. Try to create some sort of barrier, such as a swath of sheet metal around a tree trunk, to keep them from jumping up into your tree from ground level.
Bird netting is the best solution for keeping away birds and squirrels, too, although squirrels are famous for chewing through it. In such cases, an alternate source of squirrel nourishment — those ‘Mammoth Gray’ sunflowers once again come to mind, or perhaps placement of sunflower seeds in a dish during the day but bringing the dish in at night to keep away nocturnal wildlife intruders — may be just enough of a deterrent to keep the squirrels from gnawing on the bird netting.
Finally, you might want to try mixing up so-called squirrel beaters tonic, which consists of 2 tbsp. cayenne pepper, 2 tbsp. Tabasco sauce, 2 tbsp. chili pepper, and 1 tbsp. Murphy oil soap dissolved in a quart of water. Pour into a hand sprayer and apply to your fruit.
Note: I want to thank Mark Begovich of San Pedro for pointing out that I erred in calling tree tobacco (Nicotiana glauca) a California native when it is actually native to South America. Begovich recalled that tree tobacco came by ship from Argentina and that its “seeds got into dirt and rocks that were used for ballast” and it was spread in this way to other colonies. He says he is not sure if this really happened but I would suggest that it did. Nearly all of the common weeds in the United States came from somewhere else, often in dirt that was indeed used as ballast in explorers’ ships.
Tip of the Week: If you have a narrow planter to fill, consider Echeveria. There are many species of this succulent genus with chalky blue to purplish foliage and contrasting salmon orange and yellow flowers. A row of starry Echeveria rosettes, just by themselves, makes an elegant display.