Is Hot Pepper Bird Seed Safe for Birds?

Should you use hot sauce, chili powder or cayenne pepper to keep squirrels off your feeders? Learn if adding hot pepper to bird seed is safe.

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Will Cayenne Pepper Keep Squirrels Away From Bird Feeders?

Squirrel Perching On Bird FeederTony Quinn / EyeEm/Getty Images
Use caution when applying hot pepper to bird seed in an effort to deter squirrels.

“Will it hurt birds if I put hot pepper on bird seed to keep squirrels away?” asks Birds & Blooms reader Richard Yelverton of Jackson, Mississippi.

Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman: Expert opinions differ on this, and it’s good to question these things. The taste of cayenne pepper does often repel squirrels, and eating moderate amounts of pepper apparently won’t harm birds directly. In the American tropics, many birds even eat the red fruits of native wild peppers without being affected by the capsaicin they contain. In general, birds have far fewer taste buds than mammals, and the burning sensation doesn’t bother them. Avian digestive systems, including throats and stomachs, are very tough, which allows them to eat all kinds of things that would seem daunting to us.

But there’s a possibility that loose pepper on bird seed could blow around in the wind, potentially getting in birds’ eyes. Of course, the pepper can also get in the eyes of humans who are adding it to bird seed. For a safer option, place baffles and guards above and below feeders. It can take some experimentation to make the feeders truly squirrel proof.

“I want to put out bird seed at my second house in Maine, but the squirrels and chipmunks get it first. I’ve tried red pepper flakes, but that didn’t stop them. What can I do?” asks Carol Webb of Saugus, Massachusetts.

Kenn and Kimberly: This can be a challenge. Squirrels and chipmunks are remarkably agile and crafty. There are a number of bird feeders on the market designed to dissuade other creatures. We’ve had some success with a few of them. But we finally decided that we enjoy their antics. If you can’t beat ’em, feed ’em! We offer treats squirrels love, like peanuts and corn, in a spot away from the bird feeders. If the traffic gets to be too heavy, a stricter approach is to stop feeding the birds for a while until the squirrels lose interest.

Do safflower seeds deter squirrels?

Is Chili Powder Safe for Birds?

“My wife feeds ground-up pecans to juncos. She also has pecans that are dusted with chili powder. Is it OK to feed those to birds?” asks Delmar Hunt of Savannah, Missouri.

Kenn and Kimberly: The taste of chili powder won’t deter the birds, and they can eat it without harm since they have tough digestive systems. In fact, some wild bird stores sell birdseed treated with chili extract to keep squirrels away. And in the American tropics, birds will eat red-hot ripe chiles right off the plants. The reason we hesitate to recommend the powdered form is because the chili powder may blow around, potentially getting in birds’ eyes (or the eyes of pets or children). If you can serve the treated ground pecans in a secure location out of the wind, it’s probably OK.

Does Hot Sauce Deter Squirrels?

hot pepper bird seedVia Merchant

“I added hot sauce to my sunflower seed to discourage squirrels, but they still came. How much hot sauce should I be using?” Doug Decker of Kansas City, Missouri.

Kenn and Kimberly: Hot sauce on bird seed is effective enough for discouraging squirrels that some bird feeding stores now offer their own brand of hot pepper sauce for that purpose. We’ve tried this method ourselves and found it a bit messy. The results varied. Fortunately, there are good alternatives.

Stores that specialize in bird feeding also sell squirrel-proof feeders that are consistently reliable. You could also try seed cylinders, which are blocks of seed bonded together with gelatin to cut down on loose seed falling to the ground and attracting squirrels and other unwelcome visitors. (Psst—also try these no-mess bird feeders). And, if you’re interested in giving the method another try, take the guesswork (and mess) out of it by purchasing pretreated suet cakes or bird seed.

Next, learn how to keep squirrels from digging up flower pots and bulbs.

Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman
Kenn and Kimberly are the official Birds & Blooms bird experts. They are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world. When they're not traveling, they enjoy watching birds and other wildlife in their Northwest Ohio backyard. Fascinated with the natural world since the age of 6, Kenn has traveled to observe birds on all seven continents, and has authored or coauthored 14 books about birds and nature, including include seven titles in his own series, Kaufman Field Guides, designed to encourage beginners by making the first steps in nature study as easy as possible. His next book, The Birds That Audubon Missed, is scheduled to be published by Simon & Schuster in May 2024. Kenn is a Fellow of the American Ornithological Society, and has received the American Birding Association’s lifetime achievement award twice. Kimberly is the Executive Director of Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) in northwest Ohio. She became the Education Director in 2005 and Executive Director in 2009. As the Education Director, Kimberly played a key role in building BSBO’s school programs, as well as the highly successful Ohio Young Birders Club, a group for teenagers that has served as a model for youth birding programs. Kimberly is also the co-founder of The Biggest Week In American Birding, the largest birding festival in the U.S. Under Kimberly’s leadership, BSBO developed a birding tourism season in northwest Ohio that brings an annual economic impact of more than $40 million to the local economy. She is a contributing editor to Birds & Blooms Magazine, and coauthor of the Kaufman Field Guides to Nature of New England and Nature of the Midwest. Accolades to her credit include the Chandler Robbins Award, given by the American Birding Association to an individual who has made significant contributions to education and/or bird conservation. In 2017, she received a prestigious Milestone Award from the Toledo Area YWCA. Kimberly serves on the boards of Shores and Islands Ohio and the American Bird Conservancy.