Winning the squirrel wars (© Jonathan Fife/Getty Images)

They’re furry. They’re cute. One of them even pals around with a moose named Bullwinkle.

Squirrels — those acorn-nibbling symbols of the leafy American suburb. But they’re not always as charming as Rocky the cartoon character. For homeowners, squirrels can be a real pain in your attic. Or your lawn or garden, for that matter.

“Once they get into a house, they’re basically a rat, and they do all the damage that a rat does,” says Jeff Jackson, a certified wildlife biologist and retired professor of wildlife management at the University of Georgia, and now a wildlife management consultant.

If he becomes a pest, Rocky must be stopped. Here’s what the experts say you need to know to boot squirrels out — and keep them out — of your home and its surrounding area.

The Trojan squirrel
Seeing them up on a branch, nibbling a nut, you might not think squirrels have anything to do with you. And while humans and squirrels can coexist, the latter have the potential to do lots of damage.

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They can walk along power lines and short out transformers, Jackson has written in a popular primer on the rodent. They can damage lawns when they bury their nuts, and when they search for them later. They chew the bark on trees and shrubs. They dine at birdfeeders. They are most active toward dusk and near daybreak, often waking a home’s occupants by running on the roof or in the attic.

That’s not all. According to the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management Program, tree squirrels can carry diseases, such as tularemia (aka “rabbit fever”) and ringworm, that are transmissible to people. They also frequently have fleas, mites and other ectoparasites.

“But the real concern is the fire hazard,” says Scott McNeely, owner of McNeely Pest and Wildlife Solutions in Winston-Salem, N.C. “Because of the rodent nature of squirrels, they tend to chew. And they can be a major concern to electrical wiring” once they enter a house.

Got squirrel?
How do you know if you have a squirrel problem? It’s not so hard, experts say:

  • Look for them: They’re usually visible creatures, active during daylight hours.
  • Listen for them: If you worry about having squirrels in the attic, listen in the early morning and at dusk; that’s when they’re most active and likely to be scrabbling around.
  • Look again: Check around your house — in the eaves, soffits, overhangs — for small places where a squirrel could have slipped inside.  Go up into the attic and look for signs of nesting and food (and possibly baby squirrels).
  • Follow the teeth marks: “They’ll also sometimes chew on decks” as well as the edges of shutters, window casings, etc., because some paint additives use salts that squirrels like, McNeely says.

An ounce of prevention
The best way to keep squirrels away is to thwart them in the first place. There are several effective ways to do this:

  • Cut back: “Squirrels can climb wood siding or brick siding pretty effectively, but the most common thing they’ll climb is tree limbs,” McNeely says. So a good rule of thumb is to cut branches until they’re six feet away from a home’s roof lines — too far for most (nondaredevil) squirrels to leap.
  • Collar that tree: Stop squirrels from climbing trees or even power poles by wrapping them with a 2-foot-wide collar of metal, six feet off the ground, says the University of California: “Attach metal using encircling wires held together with springs to allow for tree growth.”
  • Trip up tightrope-walking rodents: Wildlife expert Jackson says you can stop squirrels from running along electrical wires by installing 2-foot sections of lightweight, 2- to 3-inch diameter plastic pipe. Slit the pipe lengthwise, spread it open and place it over the wire. Since this outer pipe fits only loosely, it spins on the wire, and squirrels can’t cross it.
  • Fix that feeder: If the home’s birdfeeder is the attraction, put an end to that by buying one of several varieties of squirrel-proof feeders. Or, give the squirrels something else to target: Nail up a corncob farther away, Jackson suggests.
  • Block ’em out: You need to seal out the varmints so they won’t waltz back inside. How? “Areas of concern should be covered with metal flashing, or quarter-inch mesh or even half-inch mesh,” McNeely says. Extend the patch several inches beyond the hole in all directions to stop the squirrel from gnawing around it.

Caution: “One should always make sure that the squirrels are not present before sealing a hole,” he says. Translation: Don’t accidentally block them inside! Here’s how to make sure you don’t: Ball up a newspaper. Put it in the hole the squirrels have been using. Now wait, probably two days. If the newspaper remains intact, McNeely says, you can be more certain the squirrels are outside. Now seal up the hole.

 © Karen Beard/photolibrary

Bing: Search & decide

People badly want to believe in a magic bullet — or make that a stinky bullet — some product that drives away squirrels because it smells bad, tastes bad or imparts fear.

  • Hot sauce: There are products on the market that use capsaicin, the “hot” ingredient in pepper, to discourage squirrels from gnawing, for example. But the experts are skeptical about the effectiveness. “That may have some effect,” Jackson says of a pepper-based spray.
  • Sticky stuff: Products that contain polybutenes, or sticky materials that can be applied to buildings, railings, downspouts and other areas to prevent squirrels from climbing, may also be effective because animals don’t like to walk on them. But it’s not exactly desirable to have strips all around your house like a sticky moat.
  •  Mothballs: The University of California says that napthalene (mothballs) used at a rate of five pounds per 2,000 cubic feet of air space may temporarily discourage squirrels from entering attics and other enclosed spaces. However, the smell of mothballs also can irritate humans, and some experts don’t advise this.

In short, “a repellent is a temporary thing,” Jackson says. It’s not a long-term fix.