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Long Live Squirrels
(just maybe not where you live)
by Constance Young
As Published in (Summer 05) issue of AboutTown magazine
As I sit at my breakfast counter watching out the window as squirrels try to
outwit my latest "squirrel proof" birdfeeder I think, "This is just as much fun
as bird watching, or maybe even whale watching." That's not far fetched, because
squirrels and whales have a lot in common. Most squirrels and whales are gray,
both can swim, both make clicking and grunting noises, and both can leap
majestically into the air. I mention this largely to counter some misconceptions
many people have about squirrels. While people generally consider whales
majestic and wonderful creatures, they write off squirrels as nuisances--as
What squirrels are and what they are not
Squirrels are not bushy-tailed rats (although I have nothing against rats
personally, unless they are in my house or barn). Members of the squirrel family
differ from other small rodents in a number of ways.
First, unlike most other rodents, they are active during the day, and
consequently their sense of sight is more developed. You might have noticed also
that a squirrel's eyes are much larger than those of many other animals, and
they do not face forward. This means that squirrels don't have binocular vision.
Therefore, they might mistake your finger for a peanut should you try to feed
them nuts by putting the nuts right in front of their faces. As do human ears,
squirrel ears face to the sides (mouse and rat's ears face forward).
There are over 365 different species of squirrel-like mammals throughout the
world. In our area, we are most familiar with tree squirrels, rather than the
so-called ground squirrels or "flying" squirrels. There are ten species of tree
squirrels, but we see mostly the Eastern gray or the smaller red varieties.
These squirrels do their high wire antics in the trees much like small primates
(lemurs), and they build their nests high in the trees from twigs and leaves,
lining the interior with fur, feathers or other soft materials. Squirrels
usually live in hardwood or mixed hardwood and pine forests and favor oaks,
hazel and beech trees.
The average life span of a squirrel is about six years, although they are
known to live 20 years in captivity (squirrels don't make good pets).
Unfortunately most squirrels in urban areas do not reach their first birthday
because they are run over by cars.
The female squirrel will give birth to a litter of three or four babies in
the early spring and possibly again in the fall. Baby squirrels are furless,
blind, and weigh only one or two ounces. Young squirrels mature rather slowly
for a rodent, and are on their own in about two and a half months.
Animals that get high off the ground are safer from predators and can
therefore be noisier than ground-hugging animals. The extreme forms of this
phenomenon are birds and their elaborate songs. Squirrels don't sing, but they
certainly do chatter.
The squirrel's bushy tale serves several purposes. Its primary function is
for balance, enabling the squirrel to maneuver quickly without falling. The tail
is also used as a blanket in the winter, to communicate with other squirrels,
and as a parachute in the case of a fall.
Interesting fact: Believe it or not, the largest concentration of squirrels
in the U.S. are in Washington, D.C.--specifically, in Lafayette Park, across
from the White House. Some people call the park the Squirrel Capital of the
world. Squirrels roam freely there and are well-fed by the thousands of
government employees and visitors who tour the park daily.
Squirrels are vegetarian and usually eat nuts, seeds and berries, but when
desperate they may resort to birds' eggs and insects. They especially like
hazelnuts in shells, brazil nuts, sweet chestnuts and acorns. Summertime is the
hungriest time of year for squirrels, and although the landscape may appear to
be green and lush, since they cannot eat grass and leaves as other grazing
animals do, squirrels must scrounge for whatever they can find. A squirrel's
territory usually runs from about one to seven acres in size.
Squirrels are generally tidy when they bury their nuts. When they become
accustomed to eating from a bird feeder and that feeder is empty, they will
resort to their buried stores and for some reason are not as tidy when digging
up their hidden nuts. They usually leave an empty hole and a mess behind.
Hundreds of people have tried to build squirrel-proof birdfeeders. Some
feeders work better and longer than others, but eventually most squirrels will
figure out how to break in. Perhaps the best approach is to build a better
A common principle involved in squirrel-proof birdfeeders is using a domed
top over the feeder. Alas, squirrels soon learn that although the baffle may
dump them onto the ground, some seeds usually fall out too, which provides a
small meal. Squirrels able to figure this out can often also compute the
spillage angle so completely that they simply launch themselves at the dome,
bounce off and harvest the spillage on the ground. Soon there's nothing left in
More expensive, sophisticated feeders employ a mechanical principle of
counterbalanced baffles that close over access ports when an animal as heavy as
a squirrel comes to feed. An ingenious and inexpensive homemade solution may not
be as pretty, but it does the job equally, perhaps more, efficiently. Try this:
Suspend a feeder from a horizontal wire equipped with rotating baffles that
prevent squirrels from scampering across as they do when they move along a
telephone wire. The simple design I'm suggesting involves stringing the line
through three or four empty one-liter (or larger) soda pop bottles on each side
of the feeder. Rotating freely along the line, these bottles dump any squirrel
rash enough to try to challenge them.
As the saying goes, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." If squirrels have
outwitted your most sophisticated bird feeders, try giving the squirrels their
own feeder. As I am sure you have already learned, squirrels like sunflower
seeds and peanuts. However peanuts, which are not even nuts, but beans, are not
native to North America, and are not natural squirrel food. Moreover, their
flimsy shells don't make for good hoarding. Raw peanuts are even dangerous, so
if you must, give the squirrels only roasted peanuts; better yet, serve them
real nuts and acorns. They can also eat mushrooms and plants and bulbs that may
be poisonous to humans (for some reason, their short digestive tracts can handle
If you have found an orphaned squirrel or a squirrel has gotten into your
attic and you want to know how to remove the animal, call Wildlife Watch at
845-256-1400 for advice. Another source is