Squirrels vs Arborvitae

Asked April 20, 2020, 4:01 PM EDT

I hope you can offer insight please. As a bird watcher, I feed birds via feeder in my backyard. Of course, squirrels are often the beneficiary of suet, seeds and peanuts I provide the birds. That is not my complaint. My neighbor asked if I could stop feeding the birds because he claims squerrils are eating and destroying his 20’ arborvitae. I don’t know what type of arborvitae he has but they are different from mine, which squirrels seem to ignore. Neighbor insists that “tree experts” say said squirrels like his bushes because they taste good and the only way to avoid more destruction is to trap the tree rodents and move them 25 miles away. Saying this is out of the question, he asked me to quit feeding the squirrels so he can trap and kill them and rid the neighborhood of these dangerous monsters. I really like my neighbor, and enjoy the backyard wildlife. I’d like to continue feeding my visitors, and certainly not interested in him killing the seven squirrels I have named. Is it possible you can offer advice for my dilemma please? Any reports I can share with him? Thank you. Gary Sahadi

Monroe County Michigan

1 Response

Hi Gary;
I can help you for sure!

Here are some good talking points:
1. Squirrels eat nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetable plants, sometimes flowers, and sometimes the new shoots on plants and evergreens. They can also break off branches and strip bark for their nests. https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/red_squirrel_injury_to_spruce_trees_in_winter. It is important to understand the level and type of damage that is occurring on the arborvitae in question. I apologize ahead for the reference to the Remington in the above article, as I personally believe we need to make some level of space for wildlife in our lives because we are sharing space.
2. Deer love arborvitae. Is your neighbor sure the damage is caused by squirrels? When trees get damaged, is very important to identify the cause so you can accurately address the problem. If there is a significant amount of damage to their tree, I would be more suspicious of deer (or rabbits) than squirrels, although squirrels are still a possibility.
3. Even if you were to kill the local squirrels, squirrels live everywhere in all types of environments. There is a strong likelihood that new squirrels would move in to the area and replace the ones that were relocated. Relocation and cessation of feeding them would help temporarily, but if you have good squirrel habitat, they will likely recolonize.
4. It can be a bit challenging to interact with a neighbor who may not see eye-to-eye on wildlife issues. I would argue that your neighbor is most worried about their arborvitae more than anything. But it's really important to get at the actual cause of the problem rather than just hypothesize. You could refer them to this "Ask an Expert" website or the MSU Lawn and Garden hotline at 1-888-678-3464 to get help on identifying what is actually happening to their arborvitae (you can attach pictures to this site btw). And perhaps a concurrent break on feeding the birds/squirrels while your neighbor checks on that could be some common ground between the two of you?
5. A trail cam can shed some light on what the squirrels are up do, too. They will not be out a night, but the deer will and could be captured in that video if they are the real problem? Trail cams can tell us a lot about who's doing what in our yards.
6. One of my regular recommendations to folks with wildlife damage issues is that yards with limited choices lead animals to those limited choices. Yards with biodiversity and many types of plants, shrubs and trees, can buffer against animals targeting single choices (especially if they are very hungry). Squirrel damage to evergreens is usually when they have little to no other choices. Interestingly enough, your food is so much more desirable to them then arborvitae, that I would imagine you are luring them away from arborvitaes rather than sending them there (unless you stopped feeding in the winter?)
7. Finally, there are some plants that are better than others when it comes to wildlife. Although you cannot tell folks what to plant and not plant, arborvitae are very popular trees in the landscaping business, but rarely a good choice in the world of wildlife, especially when it comes to deer.

Here is another article on winter damage:
https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/tree_damage_from_squirrels_can_be_severe_during_winter_months

Good luck!