Sure, they drive you crazy when they empty your birdfeeder or pinch something from your veggie garden. But squirrels’ wild chases and antics do make them pretty amusing to watch. Because they’re incredibly adaptable, they’re able to cope with what we humans do with the green spaces around us. Depending upon where in North America you live, you may see any of several squirrel species: fox, eastern or western gray, pine (sometimes called red), or northern or southern flying squirrel. All but the flying squirrels are active by day, making them easy to watch. Catching a glimpse of a flying squirrel is a bit more of a challenge. Western gray squirrels are less common in towns than the eastern ones, preferring instead to live in more forested habitat. Still, in most places, squirrels will be a part of your daily life, so why not learn a little bit about them.
Obviously squirrels are well endowed in the tail department. They also have big, sparkly eyes, and they’re more than friendly enough to stop and gaze into yours, while they try to assess whether you’re friendly toward them. Their fur may be gray, accented with reddish yellow on the tail or back, with a white tummy, or it may be all black, or—more rarely—all white. Fox squirrels are the biggest among North American squirrels, weighing up to three pounds and measuring about 15” long, plus an impressive tail of about the same length. For comparison, that makes them about half again the length of eastern gray squirrels.
Like most animals, squirrels spend a huge part of their day finding and eating food. In autumn, finding and storing food for winter and early spring sends them into hyper-drive. In addition to the obvious favorite of acorns, squirrels eat many other foods, including various nuts, flowers, tree buds, fungi, pinecones, seeds, fruits, insects, and sometimes the eggs or nestlings of ground-nesting birds.
Squirrels are active year-round, though they briefly take refuge in their nests in severe weather. Species that are active by day take a rest at midday, then, they resume foraging for the afternoon. The eastern gray and fox species have two litters (usually with 2-4 young, but sometimes up to 8), while the western gray have only one litter. Squirrel moms raise their young on their own, tending to them within the nest for 7-8 weeks and weaning them sometime between 8 and 12 weeks. Late summer or early fall baby squirrels stay with their mom through the winter; those from early in the season disperse after weaning.
Squirrels are as adaptable with their homemaking as they are with their diets, and most individual squirrels have more than one nest. Nest sites are sometimes in tree cavities. Other times they create leaf nests with leaves, twigs, and other plant materials within high branches of a tree. Much to human dismay, they also make nests within attics and crawl spaces. Squirrels view summer as a time for nesting alone, except for moms with young. In winter, though, they often share a nest to benefit from each other’s warmth.
The Squirrel’s Role in the Ecosystem
Like everything in nature, squirrels have an important place within their ecosystems. Naturally, they are a part of the food chain, but they also make another contribution. Because of their Herculean acorn-storing efforts, they “plant” a new crop of trees each fall—the trees that bear one of their favorite foods, and that help countless other species—because, inevitably, some of the acorns are never found and begin to grow.
Got Squirrel Problems?
Okay, so maybe you haven’t forgotten your squirrel complaints, in spite of all their cool qualities. Not to worry. The links below will help you out with solutions for the squirrel situations that sometimes arise. You’ll definitely not find any advice here about “how to clean a squirrel” though. Why? Squirrels keep themselves pretty tidy and neat with frequent preening, and we think that’s the only “cleaning” topic that should be mentioned with respect to these fascinating and resourceful creatures.