Logo Whiskers, Paws and Love Inc.
Articles WPL Friends Donate Volunteer Shirts Paws Together®

SQUIRRELS DESERVE OUR APPRECIATION AND LOVE

Author Photo

Whiskers, Paws and Love Inc. Team

Blog Post Image

Table of Contents

    Found worldwide, there are over 278 species of squirrels which are categorized into three types: tree squirrels, ground squirrels and flying squirrels. They perform a complex and important role in our ecosystems. I bet you didn’t know that squirrel behavior is one of the biggest factors influencing forest regeneration.

    Most squirrels spend their time collecting and storing food (seeds, acorns and nuts) in the soil and trees for the winter. The method they almost always use is ‘Scatter hoarding’: A labor-intensive technique as a hedge against theft in which they hide food across hundreds or thousands of hiding places. Thanks to detailed spatial memory and a strong sense of smell, they have an uncanny ability to remember where their stashes are located. However, for whatever reason, 25% is not recovered, which results in the sprouting of new plants and trees.

    On average, squirrels eat about one pound of food per week. Since they need to eat year-round, they’re distributing a lot of seeds from a variety of fruits and plants. They also spread a fungus that is important for the growth and health of many Northwest tree species. When digging, they get covered in fungal spores, and the spores are dispersed when they dig somewhere else. As a major part of their diet, three squirrel species (the northern flying squirrel, the Douglas' squirrel, and the Townsend's squirrel) consume truffles produced by fungal partners of important tree species. Squirrels also consume mushrooms, lichens, maple seeds, poplar catkins, and salal fruit. They spread the spores of these fungi throughout the forest in their feces.

    Squirrels are opportunistic feeders with varied diets. Flying squirrels have adapted over thousands of years to survive on different foods than ground squirrels, and even among tree squirrels, the species matters as to the primary food source and storage strategy. Environments that host plentiful natural squirrel food include hardwood forests with mature oak, hickory, elm, and maple trees; nut and fruit orchards; gardens and farm fields containing fruits, vegetables, seeds, and grain crops; and bird feeders in residential backyards. Unfortunately, they also find scraps of food and scavenge through garbage cans in public parks and on university campuses which might cause them to become sick, weakened or fatigued. It could kill them because they aren’t always able to digest human food. Squirrels are more omnivorous than most people think. They are known to eat young snakes, lizards, smaller rodents, bird eggs, baby birds, snails, insects and animal carcasses, especially when food is scarce.

    They play a big role in the food chain as both predators, as mentioned above, and, more often, as prey. Because of their size and abundance, they are a critical food source for many nonhuman predators such as foxes, coyotes, bobcats, birds of prey, snakes and even alligators to name a few. They've long been hunted by people too, and once served as key ingredients for American dishes like Kentucky burgoo and Brunswick stew. (Squirrel meat is currently being served in a restaurant in Edinburgh.)

    SQUIRREL BEHAVIORS THAT ANNOY PEOPLE ARE FAIRLY EASY TO AVOID

    They dig holes in the lawn, chew things they shouldn’t, pilfer from the garden and bird feeder, and sometimes get into your house; however, the first step toward living more peacefully alongside them is to understand why they do those things. They have learned that a garden or a bird feeder provides a safe, dependable meal and that an attic can be a nice warm place to raise a squirrel family. Because of their need to gnaw on stiff materials to wear down their upper and lower incisors (which grow continuously throughout their lifetimes at a rate of about six inches per year), they might chew on wood, plastic, upholstery, asphalt roofing and even soft metal such as aluminum lawn furniture, aluminum flashing and copper wiring in your yard.

    How to prevent them from damaging gardens

    You can plant natural repellents such as garlic, onions and mint around the edges of your garden which smell unpleasant to squirrels; and certain flowers (marigolds, daffodils, and geraniums) not only beautify our gardens but also naturally deter squirrels. Squirrels are sensitive to the compound that makes peppers hot, so planting a few spicy varieties of peppers, or just sprinkling a liberal amount of chili powder around the perimeter of the garden can also be a deterrent. As last resort, netting or hardware cloth can help to keep them away

    How to prevent them from chewing deck furniture

    Begin by making your yard as unwelcoming as possible by feeding dogs or cats indoors, raking up acorns or other nuts frequently, and trimming away tree branches that are within six feet of the ground. Squirrels usually avoid materials with tastes or scents they find disagreeable. You can sprinkle cayenne, peppermint, black pepper, vinegar, garlic or Irish Spring soap around your deck furniture. (Peppermint oil alone or peppermint mixed with garlic or hot sauce might last longer than something mixed only with water.) There are squirrel repellent sprays you can buy. During months when you are on the deck regularly, you need to reapply the scents frequently, especially after it rains. In the fall you should apply fresh scents before covering your deck furniture with tightly fitting furniture covers rather than with a tarp. Another method is to paint your deck furniture with a mixture of cayenne and paint. Knowing that they instinctively chew on stiff materials, you could try wrapping the legs of outdoor furniture with soft padding.

    How to prevent them from entering your house

    Most species of squirrel only need a 3-inch or smaller hole to get into the house, so be sure to seal any small gaps around gutters and attic windows, repair rotting wood they can chew through, and place mesh or hardware cloth behind openings like vents. If you already have a squirrel infestation (caches of nuts in your attic or walls is an obvious sign) don't seal up entry points.

    If a squirrel can come and go from your attic freely, the mother will forage outside during the day and they will stay until their young are old enough to fend for themselves, which is about two months.

    How to prevent them from getting into bird feeders (this is probably a losing battle)

    Although you can buy so-called ‘squirrel-proof’ bird feeders, squirrels are so smart that the best approach is to simply embrace them. Watching their antics can provide hours of entertainment!

    INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT SQUIRRELS

    They are amazingly intelligent. Two examples are:

    (1) In a classic bait-and-switch move to trick food robbers, tree squirrels are known to pretend to bury a tidbit by digging a hole and covering it up, but without dropping anything in the hole

    (2) Some ground squirrels collect old rattlesnake skin, chew it up and then lick their fur, creating a kind of ‘rattlesnake perfume’ that helps them hide from smell-dependent predators (particularly from rattlesnakes, who find the combined smell of ground squirrel/rattlesnake less appealing than just plain ground squirrel).

    Squirrels have remarkable little bodies: Their padded feet cushion jumps from up to 20 feet. Their eyes are high on their head and placed on each side of the head so they can see a large amount of their surroundings without having to turn their head. They are also fantastic runners. They can run 20 mph. They use their tails for balance, shade, protection from rain, as a blanket and as a rudder when swimming.

    To get from tree to tree or from a tree to the ground, flying squirrels spread the muscle membrane between their legs and body and glide on the air. They can glide up to 160 feet, with some species covering nearly 300 feet in a single glide, making it look as though they can fly! Slight movements of their legs help them to steer, and their tail acts as a brake upon landing.

    Squirrels communicate using complex systems of high-frequency chirps and tail movements. They use sound to intimidate rivals in their territory, to alert neighbors to predators in the area, to scold a predator so it will be inclined to leave, to initiate mating, and, in the case of offspring, to ask for food. They're capable of watching and learning from each other.

    Mom squirrels typically give birth to two to eight babies, which are born blind and are completely dependent on their mothers for two or three months. The babies are only one inch long at birth. Mother squirrels are the most vicious when defending their babies.

    They are very territorial and will fight to the death to defend their area.

    Adult tree squirrels normally live alone, but they sometimes nest in groups during severe cold spells. A group of squirrels is called a ‘scurry’ or ‘dray.’

    Many people feed squirrels, which is NOT recommended because: They cache their food to eat later and human food can contain bacteria and diseases that aren’t normally found in nature so even a little bit of human food can contaminate a food cache and spoil the food or spread sickness; they may become dependent upon humans and lose the ability to find their own food; they may become comfortable around humans causing them to lose their natural fear and become aggressive; it can lead to large concentrations of squirrels in one area which increases the chance of spreading disease and parasites between them; since larger animals are likely to be attracted to an area where smaller animals are fed, they could easily become prey. The best way to appreciate squirrels is to watch them and not to interact with them.