Earn It, Squirrel!


By Tanya Silverman

The latest version of Steven Barley’s squirrel course in progress. Photo courtesy of Steven Barley.

Furry invaders entered a peaceful backyard in Hitchin, England. They came fierce, they came hungry. The fluffy little squirrels came to ravish the provisions that proprietor Steven Barley had kindly set up for the local feathered population.

“They would literally empty those ‘squirrel-proof’ bird feeders in a couple days,” Barley recalls to BTR. “It’d be just like a conveyer belt backwards and forwards. Then they’d hide [the food] somewhere–wherever squirrels hide their nuts.“

Time after time, Barley watched as the zealous black and grey squirrels “teethed open a hole at the bottom of the wire mesh,” which offset “a waterfall of peanuts.”

His solution? Make the squirrels work for their food. How? Squirrel obstacle courses.

Of course on principle, Barley wasn’t going to go out and spend a ton of money on squirrel obstacle courses. He therefore gathered a few random household objects lying around–some stray wood here, some trellis there, some sticky-back plastic elsewhere–attached them to a clothes line, then rigged the rope of paraphernalia to the trampoline, leading to the bird feeder.

The premier Black Squirrel Assault Course was installed.

In the mornings, before he left home to go teach at a local school, Barley began his days by sipping coffee and peering out the window to watch the squirrels hop up on the clothesline, then climb, crawl, squirm, and shimmy through the obstacles before they landed at their prized eats.

The procedure Barley witnessed in his own backyard was so entertaining that he figured he’d share it online through YouTube videos. He started filming the squirrels running through the obstacle course, taking on the role of a sports commentator, announcing the animals’ actions through his humorous, deadpan demeanor.

The Black Squirrel Assault Course was just the first. Barley got more inventive with the next sets, double and tripling the lines as he integrated lamps, boots, sink plungers, and other home goods for them to navigate.

“I’ve used those green pan scrubbers,” he says. “I’d cut them into the shapes of grass and branches.”

His most recent YouTube video is the mock infomercial, Spoof Squirrel Assault Course Commercial.

At the moment, Barley is switching things up a bit, and building his first thematic course based on the Grand National horse race. He tells BTR that the current squirrel racetrack project is more polished than the prior obstacle courses. It’s taking him more time and effort to install reclaimed wood, rather than tying together the usual domestic bric-a-brac.

As Barley posts his YouTube videos for viewers around the world, there’s a chance that some spectators will become inspired to install their own squirrel obstacle courses. When inquired about advice to offer such prospective proteges, Barley suggests examining “all of the all the stuff you have lying around” and “think creatively about what you can do.”

He also advises to start small. It’s wise to place the edible award in a spot where the squirrels can actually see it, then gradually go about elongating the course, and putting the prize further away from where they enter. If you start off with the food too far away, the animals won’t see it, so they won’t be motivated to travel the entire way.

Through his observations, Barley learned about some squirrels’ preferences in navigation. He says that the critters aren’t fans of parts that seem unstable.

“When I put an obstacle up, I attach it to the next one with wire so it stops its swaying,” he explains.

Barley also observed that squirrels were not keen on shimmying through tunnel-like structures where they could not see the light at the other end. His way of getting them to crawl through was by lining tunnels’ interiors with peanuts.

Though Barley’s backyard endeavors have amounted to ongoing fun and entertainment, the question remains: Do the squirrel obstacle courses actually help deter these animals from eating all of the bird feed?

“No, not really,” Barley admits. “I think I spend more on peanuts than I ever used to.”