Squirrels! It’s always infant squirrels and usually Eastern Grays, who arrive on the baby train first at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC. That train pulled in on February 5th this year and the babies onboard still had their umbilical cords attached. Late January and early February, they are brand new to the world and out there in the trees with Momma Squirrel doing her best to keep them fed, safe and warm in the dead of winter. Gray squirrel litters, which occur in the Spring and Fall, number between three and five infants, and as newborns they are commonly referred to as pinkies because they are born pink and hairless. Within one week their skin turns gray because fur is developing under their skin. The first sign of hair emerges as little whiskers. Flaps of skin open and become ears the third week of life. Their eyes don’t usually open until they are between four and five weeks old. These little ones generally stay in the trees quiet and unassuming until Mom allows them to venture outside the nest unless something bad happens that Momma cannot control. It could be Mother Nature playing queen of the mountain with a tornado or hurricane that topples a tree where squirrels reside. Even if the tree is not damaged and remains intact, high winds could cause the nest to fail, expelling squirrel babies. Most Mother squirrels have back up nests when the need arises to move their litters. Predators such as cats, crows, snakes or raptors can attack the nest or sometimes it’s another adult squirrel exerting dominance that causes infant squirrels to tumble to the ground. If you find a baby squirrel on the ground, it’s best to look around (under pine needles and leaves) while stepping very carefully to ensure there are no more displaced infants needing your help. Fido or your cat, LuLu, may also bring a baby squirrel home uninjured, so it’s best to try to reunite the baby(s) with Mother because sometimes healthy young squirrels found on the ground or transported by your pet are not orphans. They simply need help being returned to their mother, and if you monitor the situation to ensure the youngin’ is not in danger, you’ll witness the mother squirrel “rescuing” the fallen healthy baby by carrying the infant with her mouth by their scruff back to the nest. Even when the baby looks too big for Mom to handle, she will manage. There are those occasions, unfortunately, when Mom doesn’t make it back to the nest due to meeting her demise by predator, automobile or some freak accident. Let’s assess the situation first. If the baby you’ve found is bleeding, covered with fly eggs (they look like grains of rice) or ant bites, extremely cold and crying nonstop (their alarm sound is like a shrill whistle and when you hear it, you’ll never forget it!) or presents with puncture wounds, the infant squirrel is more than likely orphaned. When a baby squirrel loses its mother, it is in desperate trouble because squirrel infants are totally dependent upon Mom. A baby squirrel has the best chance of survival when it is cared for by its mother, however, when Mom is removed from the equation, foster Moms, such as wildlife rehabilitators, are their next best option. If you find you truly have a case that supports orphan status, you will have to step in and take over for Mom to save this baby’s life. Get a shoebox or box about a foot square or a large Tupperware container (without the lid on) or another small suitable container. Place some soft fabric at the bottom but not towels as they can get their claws stuck in the loops and end up twisting legs trying to free themselves. Put on some leather gloves (they probably don’t have teeth yet but just to be safe). If they are pinkies, there’s no need for gloves and don’t worry about the fabric used, just choose a soft one. Gently pick up the baby and place it in the container. Put the container on a heating pad on its lowest setting and choose a dark and quiet area in your home (a closed door bathroom or closet is good) to house the little one. Then, contact your nearest wildlife rehabilitator or wildlife shelter for transport instructions. If you do not have a heating pad, place a plastic bottle filled with warm water and wrapped in a dish towel in the box. Make sure the lid is on tight and the water is not too hot. Do not attempt to feed the infant squirrel, and keep the baby or babies away from any other living beings such as dogs, cats, parrots, children or larger humans. If, at dusk, you find a cold baby that exhibits no conditions requiring medical attention, it would be best to keep the little one in that dark and quiet area on the lowest set heating pad, as stated earlier, over night. Most Mothers will be settled in for the night at dusk anyway to ensure her litter remains quiet and safe from predators. The next morning, place the baby at the base of a tree close to where it was found and earnestly monitor a reuniting attempt with Mom (1 to 2 hours). Most of us have heard the old tale that has become a widespread misconception that wildlife Moms will not accept the baby back if it emits human scent, but that IS NOT TRUE! She will just be happy to have her baby back. If the reunite does not happen the next day, you will need to give the infant its best chance of survival with a licensed wildlife rehabilitator who will most likely have other young squirrels to litter-mate with your rescued squirrel. If the young squirrel you found or who found you by running up to you is eyes opened and fully furred with a bushy tail, he or she needs to be taken to the wildlife shelter right away. Juvenile squirrels will not be running up to you unless they are in trouble, mainly orphaned. The juvie needs to be with other squirrels to ensure behaviors required to survive in the wild are learned. All wildlife, including squirrels, have developmental, nutritional, housing and handling requirements that are species specific and must be met if the animal has any chance of survival, and it’s important to keep in mind that raising a wild animal in captivity is illegal in North Carolina unless you have a state permit. Squirrels are weaned between six and seven weeks of age, but will continue to nurse until ten to twelve weeks. Wildlife rehabilitators also follow the same developmental process by extending syringe feedings of formula until the juvenile weans and will continue to provide squirrel formula in a dish to be lapped along with offering a variety of fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts until they are behaviorally capable and ready for release. Yes, they are cute and it’s tempting, but squirrels need other squirrels to be raised properly and to live the longest and best squirrel life possible!
best always and Happy Spring!!
Linda Bergman-Althouse, author of