A Squirrel’s World

CSIMG_0483FBThey just keep coming in and surprisingly, without being tossed and blown by a hurricane or tropical storm this year. Infant squirrel admits are status quo after heavy rain and big wind activity, but the number of displaced and orphaned squirrels has been unusually high for the past few months and can only be chalked up to our wet summer, possibly weakening nest structures or causing trees to fall. At the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, infant squirrels in every developmental stage, from pinky to fully furred, can be found in containers or chew proof enclosures in every room and also in the personal care and homes of staffers or volunteers. Squirrels are familiar to almost everyone and are the second-most fed and watched wild animals, after birds. Most of us enjoy their antics and find them entertaining and if I may go so far, lovable. There are more than 200 squirrel species living all over the world, except Australia. In Eastern North Carolina, we are blessed with Eastern Grays, Fox and Flying Squirrels. Most wildlife rehabilitators have great fondness for raising young squirrels to release, because, although messy and capable of fast and furious squirrely behaviors in adolescence, they are the easiest and usually, the hardiest of all babies to rear. You don’t have to coax a baby squirrel to drink its formula from a syringe. The problem is getting the syringe full and the nipple in front of their face fast enough! Sep2013Squirrel1EWhen we keep their tummies full and give them comfy, warm places to sleep, they are content and we’d like to think, happy, although their facial expressions never change much. Most of the squirrels coming in during this second breeding season of the year are Eastern Grays. They can start breeding at five and a half months, but usually breed for the first time at age one. The first litter of naked, toothless and blind babies is born in February to March, the second in June to July. Normally, two to six young are born in each litter. Aug2013EEThe gestation period is about 44 days; the young are weaned at seven weeks and leave the nest after 10 weeks. However, second breeding season youngsters will spend the winter with their mother. Eastern gray squirrels build a nest known as a “drey” in the forks of trees, consisting mainly of dry leaves and twigs. Males and females may share the same nest for short times during the breeding season and during cold winter spells squirrels may share a drey to keep warm. Unfortunately, they have been known to also nest in attics or exterior walls of a house, where they are deemed pests by home owners. In addition, squirrels may inhabit a permanent tree den hollowed out in the trunk or a large branch of a tree, which, of course, is more preferred by humans. Eastern Gray Squirrels are members of the Rodent family and spend most of their lives in trees. They grow 17 to 20 inches long and have grayish-brown fur, except for their bellies which appear white or very pale. The bushy tail, used for thermal regulation and to sign an alarm by vigorously tail flicking, often has silvery-tipped hairs at the end. The squirrel’s greatest tool may be its tail, which it also uses for balance, shade from the sun as an umbrella, a blanket and as a rudder when swimming. They have incredible balance and rarely fall from trees. FB_MG_7201XThey also run headfirst down a tree trunk, which happens rarely, if ever, with other animals. Communication among Eastern Gray Squirrels involves both posturing and vocalizations which include a squeak similar to that of a mouse, a low-pitched rumbling noise, a chatter and a raspy “mehr mehr” sound. The Eastern Gray sports four fingers on the front feet and five on the hind feet. Their bounding stride can measure two to three feet when at full speed. Their diet includes: acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts, beechnuts, maple (buds, bark, and samaras), Yellow Poplar blossoms, American Hornbeam seeds, apples, fungi, Black Cherry, Flowering Dogwood, grapes, sedges, grasses, American Holly, mushrooms, insects (adults and larvae), bird eggs, amphibians and if hungry enough, might snatch a baby bird or frog. Squirrels have four front teeth that never stop growing but stay short due to constant wear and daily grinding they receive by constant gnawing.They gnaw on bones, antlers and turtle shells, likely as a source of minerals sparse in their normal diet as well as the need to grind. Don’t forget all the bird feeders they raid that are not squirrel proof (and even the squirrel proof ones, usually aren’t). Squirrels are problem solvers and can figure those challenges out! The Eastern Gray Squirrel is a scatter-hoarder that hides or buries food in numerous small caches for later recovery. Each squirrel is estimated to make several thousand caches each season. The squirrels have accurate spatial memory for the locations of these caches, and use distant and nearby landmarks to retrieve them. Smell is used only when the squirrel is within a few inches of the cache. Eastern gray squirrels are more active during the early and late hours of the day and tend to avoid the heat in the middle of a summer day and do not hibernate as some folks think. Predators include humans, hawks, weasels, raccoons, domestic and feral cats, snakes, owls and dogs, so they have reason to employ defensive tactics such as freezing in place and zigzag running at warp speed! Eastern grays can live to be 20 years old in captivity, but in the wild may live up to 5 -12 years if they stay healthy, rely on their good senses of vision, smell and hearing and can outmaneuver the many predators trying to take them out! Although some people have a love-hate relationship with the squirrel, we can’t ignore their great value to our ecosystem. Squirrels help control plant populations by eating many seeds, fruits and insect populations. They are a good means of seed and nut dispersal, and therefore help reforest trees and other plants. They are highly intelligent and fascinating to watch. Of course, they can get into a little mischief, but because they are so cute and lively, most of us just deal with it and have fun trying to outsmart them, which is not easy!

Happy Holiday Season Everyone!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All