If you’ve ever installed a backyard bird feeder in hopes of peacefully observing your fine feathered friends, you’re probably aware that it quickly becomes a target for your local squirrel population. Now, if anyone can stop a squirrel from breaching a bird feeder you’d assume a former NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer could, but as Mark Rober discovered, squirrels are the unstoppable ninjas of the animal kingdom.
After leaving NASA, Rober has spent his time creating YouTube videos that explore science and engineering concepts through experiments you probably never tried in school. For instance, a few years ago he spent some time at a local carnival and used physics to determine which games players actually had a chance at winning, and which were physically impossible to beat.
His latest experiment was inspired by an attempt to take up bird watching as a way to help pass the time during the lockdown, which was thwarted by a group of local squirrels that were easily “dominating all the off the shelf ‘squirrel proof’ bird feeders” he found on Amazon. The feeders’ designs were clever, but the squirrels were smarter. As someone now well known across the internet for over-engineering a covert glitter bomb to punish package thieves, Rober decided to focus his efforts on thieving squirrels next.
Instead of just engineering a bird feeder that could effectively stop squirrels, Rober built an entire American Ninja Warrior-inspired obstacle course in his backyard for them, including everything from trap doors and mazes to even a catapult—and starting with the impossible ladder bridge challenge featured in his expose of carnival games. But Rober completely underestimated his opponents.
The squirrels made a few admirable attempts to cross the ladder bridge, but it didn’t take long for them to adapt their strategies, and simply use their athletic prowess to just skip it all together. As Rober points out, “Unless you’ve spent a lot of time trying to practice that one on your own there’s no way even the most athletic person can just step up and win that one. I think it’s telling that the parkour masters of the animal kingdom couldn’t even do it and just jumped the whole thing.”
Rober was initially worried that his obstacle course design was too devious, and that the squirrels wouldn’t have much success with reaching the ultimate goal: a giant cache of walnuts. But after just a few days of squirrel watching, it was clear that even an ex-NASA engineer was no match for them.
There are a few practical takeaways from the elaborate experiment for those struggling with birdfeed-stealing squirrels. Rober briefly touched on it in the video, but he found that what “worked well was making the pole too slippery to climb up. That’s how I kept them from climbing up every other pole on the course except the starting one.”
If you can live with a daily routine of greasing up a pole, there’s a chance you can win the squirrel war. But perhaps the biggest takeaway from this experiment is the same conclusion that the WOPR supercomputer in the film WarGames came to in regards to thermonuclear war: When it comes to battling squirrels, the only way to win is not to play.