I was twelve years old the day my dad first put up a bird feeder. In my mind's eye I can see it still; a wooden house with sloped roof, glass sides, and a wide feeding tray. And I can still see its common clientele; tufted titmice, black capped chickadees, and common grackles, which my best friend insisted were ravens. But you know what I remember best? Squirrel wars.

At first our feeder was mounted on a pole, which was no deterrent to squirrels whatsoever. The furry creatures — gray squirrels, we had — simply shinnied up the pole, hooked onto the tray with their front feet, then heaved themselves over the edge. They were fun to watch, but they emptied the feeder in a matter of minutes, and they kept the birds away.

So, dad hung the feeder on a wire suspended between two trees. For a day or two the birds fed with impunity as the squirrels sat on nearby branches and scratched their heads in thought. But a couple days more and one, then two, and finally whole squadrons of squirrels learned how to walk the tightrope, tails outstretched for balance. Occasionally one would slip and flip upside down — no problem. The acrobatic animal would simply continue on, hand over hand.

Next came baffles placed along the wire. As I recall, the first baffles were old phonograph records; later models were made of aluminum flashing. You probably know what happened at this juncture, too: the squirrels merely jumped over the baffles. Sometimes one would misjudge — no big deal. It would hit the ground with a thwump, catch its breath, then climb back up to try again. And usually the second time it would negotiate the barrier with ease.

The solution? Simple. We learned to put up with squirrels.

That was 25 years ago, and during that time, bird feeding has come of age. The old wooden feeder has been replaced by one made of space age plastic. Feeding houses have given way to tubes, domes, and bubbles. The number of folks feeding birds has increased from several hundred thousand to more than 60 million. And you know how we now deal with squirrels?

Simple. We learn to put up with them.

Nevertheless, if squirrels are eating up all your seed and keeping birds away from your feeders, there are some potential solutions.

The simplest approach is to provide squirrels with something they like better than bird seed. One possibility is whole corn. Try impaling a few ears of corn on some large spikes driven through a length of board, placed far away from your bird feeders. The corn will help occupy your squirrels and maybe even your jays. (If you try this around your house, fasten the board where people can't fall on the spikes!) Commercially made cob feeders are also available.

The only other solution to warding off squirrels is to make your feeders inaccessible to them. My dad was on the right track, for baffles really are the answer.

At the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where we suspect we have the world's craftiest squirrels, we've experimented a lot with baffle placement. We've found that jumping squirrels are generally repelled by tilting baffles placed over a feeder — usually when a squirrel lands on such a baffle it simply slides off. So, if your feeder is hung from a branch or mounted on a wire, a tilting top baffle — of at least 18 inches — might just do the trick. (Hint: if you do prefer a suspended feeder, try hanging it from nylon fishing line rather than wire. You can also try placing lengths of plastic tubing around the wire so that the tubing will spin when a squirrel tries to walk on it.)

But if your feeder is mounted on a pole, you'll need a baffle placed below the feeder, for squirrels can climb the slipperiest poles imaginable. In this case, the baffle need not (and probably should not) tilt. You can make a baffle quite easily from a garbage can lid or similarly round object. Or, you can buy one ready-made that simply fastens to the pole with a clamp. The only feeder in our bird garden that is truly squirrel proof is a tube feeder, mounted on a pole more than 10 feet from cover, with a 16-inch baffle fastened about a foot below the feeder bottom. The baffle also serves as a feeding tray that catches seed spilled from above.

Some sources suggest coating feeder poles with grease or glycerin. We recommend staying away from any such substances, which could prove dangerous to animals. Many chemicals are toxic, and grease can mat feathers on fur, which could cause both squirrels and birds to freeze to death.

Finally, if squirrels are chewing your feeder to bits, you have little choice but to switch to a new feeder made of indestructible material, such as Lexan. The best feeders also have seed ports reinforced with metal and are sold with guarantees against destruction by teeth.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright Cornell Lab of Ornithology. September 1992, Number 11. Cat. No. 221