Squirrels are one of the most common critters that share our yards and gardens. We notice them more than most other animals because they are active throughout the day like we are. Squirrels can be annoying and destructive but many people are also fond of the little beggars. But it is also surprising how little people know about the squirrels that share our gardens.
There are 3 common types of tree squirrels in the Eastern US, Fox, Gray and Red. (There are also northern and southern flying squirrels.) In the western US there is a Western gray Squirrel and a relative of the red squirrel called the Douglas squirrel. And Fox squirrels have recently begun to infiltrate some areas of the west. People are often confused however about what squirrel they are seeing because of common names and because the gray squirrel in particular has several color variations.
The fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) is the largest American tree squirrel. It has a reddish brown coat tipped in black. Its most obvious distinguishing trait is the rusty colored underside of the tail and slightly paler gold to reddish coloration of the belly. Unfortunately Fox squirrels are sometimes called red squirrels because of their red coloration and this confuses them with the other Red squirrel. When Fox squirrels are startled they flee quickly, directly away from the disturbance in as direct a route as possible.
Gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), are a little smaller than Fox squirrels and while they sometimes are reddish in color the back tends to be a darker grayish color, at least in the typical color of the species. Gray squirrels have white or silver colored bellies and a frosting of white hairs on the tail. Gray squirrels however come in a wide range of color mutations including white and solid black. When you see an odd colored squirrel chances are pretty good it’s a color variation of the gray squirrel.
When a gray squirrel is startled it tends to freeze along a tree limb or play hide and seek with a predator, trying to see it but keep something between itself and danger, unlike a Fox Squirrel that just flees. They are the most common urban squirrel.
The American Red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) is a small squirrel. It has a reddish back with white belly and white rings around the eyes. There is a dark line between the white belly and red back color and along the tail margins. They are sometimes called Pine squirrels. There is often confusion over the American red squirrel and the endangered European red squirrel, which are different species. American red squirrels are abundant and not endangered. However they are more likely to be found in forested rural areas rather than the suburbs or urban environments. They are aggressive and chase the larger squirrels out of areas that they frequent. Red squirrels are more likely to be active at dawn and dusk and not as visible in midday as other squirrels.
Red Squirrels cannot breed with Gray or Fox squirrels but there is some disagreement about whether Gray and Fox squirrels interbreed. Most researchers believe that such crosses are rare although the two squirrels are sometimes in the same area. Most odd colored squirrels that have been collected and studied have been Gray squirrels.
Gray squirrels were taken to Europe where they quickly became an aggressive invasive species. They are said to be responsible for the near extinction of the European red squirrel.
What they eat
Most squirrels are primarily seed and nut eaters although they also eat buds, fruits, insects and birds eggs. They may also eat baby birds in nests and even carrion (dead things) at times. Squirrels have a very good sense of smell, so good that they can smell a worm inside of a nut or acorn. These infested foods are always eaten first and not stored. Nuts and seeds can be stored in caches in tree holes and other spots or buried for later retrieval. Red squirrels rarely bury food, but they store enormous quantities of nuts and seeds in anything that will hold them.
Squirrels are fond of various types of mushrooms and American red squirrels have been observed draping pieces of mushrooms on tree branches to dry for storage. Squirrels can safely eat species of mushrooms that are poisonous to humans and other animals. They can also eat acorns that are high in tannic acid without harm. Fox squirrels accumulate porphyrin, a chemical found in acorns, that makes their teeth glow pink to red under an ultra violet light.
Squirrels don’t remember every nut they store but they are smart enough to know when another squirrel is watching them hide nuts and they will often try to fool the observer or will move their nuts after it leaves. They also watch other squirrels to find out how they get food, such as at a bird feeder and copy them. Urban squirrels can become quite tame when fed and often eat out of people’s hands. This does not mean they are tame however, and many people have been bitten by squirrels that aren’t afraid of humans.
Homes and social life
All squirrels establish territories which they then defend to some degree. Territories may be up to a mile and a half in size but squirrels also forage outside of their own territories.
While Fox and Gray squirrels tolerate others of their race at feeders and other food sources squirrels are not social animals and prefer to be alone except at mating time. Red squirrels are very territorial and don’t tolerate any other squirrels in their territory except during mating season. Mothers do tolerate their babies being around for a while but chase them away before the next litter is born.
Squirrels use two main types of nests, a big ball of leaves and other material in a tree called a “drey” and nests in tree cavities (or in your attic). They usually have several nests in their territories that they use at various times of the year. Squirrels don’t hibernate but may stay in a warm nest for days at a time in bad weather.
Squirrels have a number of calls or vocalizations that have different meanings. They seem to be able to understand calls of other species of squirrels and even the warning calls of birds and other animals.
Squirrels live about 2-6 years in the wild, although some have lived 20 years in captivity. They are preyed on by hawks and owls, cats, coyotes and bobcats. Raccoons and opossums are known to raid squirrel nests to eat the babies.
A female squirrel is called a sow and a male squirrel is called a boar. Mating occurs once or twice a year. Gray squirrels and red squirrels are seasonal breeders with a “heat period” in late December –early January and again in late June. Fox squirrels can breed any time of the year but tend to breed at about the same time as gray and red squirrels. Not all squirrels will breed twice in a year, it depends on how big the first litter was and how abundant food is.
Female squirrels are very promiscuous and breed with numerous males during their heat. There is a lot of chasing and fighting during squirrel mating and it’s a time when many squirrels die because they are almost oblivious to predators and other dangers. Gestation is 31-35 days and litter size ranges from 1-8, with 3-4 babies being average.
Male squirrels keep their testicles tucked up inside them out of sight except during the mating seasons. This accounts for the old wives tales that squirrels castrate the males of other species or that females castrate males.
Baby squirrels are born blind and hairless. Mother squirrels often move their young from nest to nest, probably to avoid predators. They begin coming out of the nest at around a month of age but remain with their mom and nurse for at least another month and often until the mothers next breeding period.
While most squirrels will gladly kill and eat the young of other squirrels a study done with red squirrels found that a female red squirrel will adopt abandoned baby red squirrels to raise if the babies are closely related to her, such as being grandchildren or nieces and nephews. Researchers aren’t quite sure how the squirrel determines the relationship.
People and squirrels
Squirrels were a popular menu item for the early European settlers because they were abundant and relatively easy to kill. There are many people that still enjoy the taste of squirrel and squirrel brains mixed with scrambled eggs is a popular southern treat. While Native Americans ate squirrels they were not a preferred source of meat. The Cherokees were said to believe that eating squirrels caused arthritis and other tribes had beliefs that eating squirrels could bring bad luck.
By the early 1800’s the clearing of land for farming and heavy hunting pressure were slowly eroding squirrel populations and they were seldom seen in cities. But by the mid-1800’s people were beginning to plan large parks in urban areas and to plant more trees. In some of these large urban parks gray squirrels were brought in and released to make the parks more “natural.” They were protected from hunting and people were encouraging children to feed squirrels to discourage animal cruelty.
The squirrel population quickly boomed in urban areas and by the early 1900’s squirrels were becoming less popular with people because of the damage they did to gardens and homes. During the wars and through the depression squirrels once again became food for the hungry and populations dipped.
The squirrel populations began to increase after WWII. Washington DC is one of the places that had and still has a very high population of squirrels. President Eisenhower hated them. He ordered them trapped and removed from the Whitehouse grounds which sparked protests. President Regan however, was a squirrel lover. He brought the Whitehouse squirrels acorns from Camp David and had a Christmas card painted that depicted a squirrel on the Whitehouse lawn. (No word on whether Obama likes squirrels.)
In the 1960’s however, with the influence of environmental movements and Disney people once again began treating squirrels as cute creatures that needed to be protected. Squirrels are very common in most cities but they can become a problem. Besides the damage they do to gardens, bird feeders and trees a squirrel causes a power outage somewhere in the US every day.
If you want to keep squirrels away from your home there are hunting seasons for squirrels in most states. If hunting isn’t feasible you can live trap them quite easily. Use peanuts as bait. You can then destroy them or release them at least 5 miles away from your home. To keep squirrels out of bird feeders use a metal post for the feeder and a cone shaped squirrel shield. Make sure bird feeders are high enough off the ground that squirrels can’t jump from the ground to them and far enough from trees so they can’t drop down on the feeder.
There are special bird feeders that use the weight of the squirrel to close access to bird feed. You can also enclose feeders in wire mesh with openings that allow birds through but not squirrels.
Don’t allow squirrels to remain in attics or other living spaces. They can start fires with their chewing and cause a lot of damage to wood surfaces. Live trap these squirrels. Rat traps will kill red squirrels. Do not use rat and mouse poisons on squirrels. They seldom work and the squirrels may carry them to un-intended areas.
If you enjoy watching squirrels two of their favorite feeds are peanuts and whole corn. When choosing peanuts for squirrels, use raw, unsalted ones. Sometimes a well-stocked squirrel feeder will keep them out of bird feeders but don’t count on it. Whether you like them or despise them however, squirrels are probably here to stay.
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