Have you ever seen a squirrel scampering up a tree or darting across a power line?
These cute and fluffy creatures are a common sights and many people enjoy watching the playful and energetic antics of squirrels, often providing a source of entertainment and delight.
The also can sometimes become a pest around our homes. That why its important to learn about what squirrels are.
In this post we will discover the world of squirrels and learn about their unique characteristics and behaviors.
Squirrels belong to the Sciuridae family of which 200 species are known to exist. The Sciuridae family also includes chipmunks, marmots and prairie dogs. They are small to medium size rodents, ranging from 5 inches to 3 feet.
Below are some examples of Tree Squirrels:
- Size: Body 15-20 inches / Tail 6-9 inches
- Weight: 1.0 to 1.5 pounds
- Lifespan: 2 to 7 years
Types of Squirrels
Squirrels can be classified into three groups:
- Tree squirrels
- Ground squirrels
- Flying squirrels.
Of those three categories, there are many different types. Some of the common ones in North America are the Eastern Gray, Western Gray, Red, Fox, Southern Flying Squirrels, and Northern Flying Squirrels.
For the purpose of this article, we will be focusing on the Eastern Gray Squirrel, which is commonly thought to be a pest when nesting around your home.
What Purpose Do Squirrels Serve?
According to an article from the University of Florida, Robert McCleery, an associate professor in the department of wildlife ecology and conservation in the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences,
“Squirrels are some of the most visible wildlife in our modern urban and suburban settings, and they are a vital part of the ecosystems they inhabit.”
McCleery also states that squirrels serve as “nature’s gardeners” and have an important ecological role, especially in forest ecosystems.
Their biggest contribution is in shaping plant composition through their caching behavior, where they bury seeds, forget where they are, and end up planting them.
This behavior over time changes the composition of a forest and can expand forests and change the types of trees that are there. In Florida, they play an important role in maintaining the native long-leaf pine ecosystem.
The Eastern Gray Squirrel
Eastern Gray’s are quite beautiful animals. They are a medium size squirrel and can grow 15 to 20 inches in length. Squirrels have bushy tails adding 6 to 9 inches to their overall length.
They weigh about 1 to 1.5 pounds and vary in color depending on their geographical location. Most are covered with gray to brown fur with a white underbelly.
However, in Canada, they can be quite dark in color appearing almost black. This difference in color is a camouflage adaptation to the vegetation differences throughout North America.
What is the a Squirrels Habitat?
They are tree squirrels and typically live in wooded areas with thick tree cover.
They will build a nest called a drey in the valley of branches of a tree using twigs, leaves, and other material high up to provide shelter for raising babies called kittens and protection from predators.
Furthermore, they have become highly adaptive to different environments an are commonly seen in city parks, suburban neighborhoods, and other areas.
What are Natural Predators of Squirrels?
Besides humans, natural predators are mostly hawks and owls, but also include animals such as skunks, weasels, foxes, and large snakes.
What is their lifecycle?
The average lifespan of Eastern Gray Squirrels is between two to seven years. Some in captivity can live up to 20 years. A female squirrel will breed twice a year around February or March and again between August and September. The gestation period is about 30 to 60 days. Each litter averages 2-8 babies called kits or kittens. The kits are born without fur, are blind and will depend on their mother for two to three months.
What is the Behavior of a Grey Squirrel?
Gray Squirrels prefer to travel in trees but will adapt, especially in urban areas often using utility wires as a means of getting about.
They are very agile and with their sharp claws and rotating hind legs and feet enabling them to turn on a dime or move down vertical surfaces.
Squirrels are also great jumpers and use their padded feet as shock absorbers from jumps and falls. While climbing and jumping, they will use their long tail for balance. In additional to balance, tails can be used for swimming in water and shield them from the elements of weather like an umbrella.
What Do Squirrels Eat?
Although squirrels usually forage for food such as nuts, acorns, berries, other fruit, tree bark and flowers, they are omnivores. When food is scarce they may eat insects, bird eggs, and even baby birds.
They will eat about one pound of food per week and like to store food usually by burying stashes in the ground to ensure they have food in the winter months. It is due to this stashing and caching behavior of walnuts, acorns and other seeds that squirrels are considered a great asset to re-planting of forests.
Why Do Squirrels Enter Our Homes?
Squirrels usually show up around our homes to find a food source. An oak tree or even a bird feeder provides a good supply of acorns and nuts. Once around, a pair of squirrel’s will quickly mate and start to look for nesting areas.
Being opportunistic creatures instead of making a nest in a tree, a squirrel may sometimes utilize abandoned nests of other animals or use areas of our homes to raise their young. A garage, attic or roof space is a warm, dry and a safe environment that is ideal for them to nest.
If your looking for ways to get rid of squirrels read my post on How to Get Rid of Squirrels: 26 Best Ways [Safe and Humane].
How Do Squirrels Get Into Our Homes?
Squirrels will usually find a small hole or gap on a roof space and squeeze in to access the attic space or a wall of your home.
If a hole is too small, they will use their long, sharp front teeth to chew a larger opening. They will also make new holes and chew there way in.
Once in an attic or wall, they will build a nest out of leaves, twigs or other debris such as pieces of clothing, hair or other trash.
How Do They Damage Property?
Besides chewing holes in walls or your roof, a squirrel can chew electrical wires in a wall or the attic that can be a potential fire hazard.
If squirrels are chewing on electrical wires around your home or in your car engine, then read my post on 7 Ways to Stop Squirrels From Chewing Wires to learn how to stop them.
Furthermore, the materials they choose to create nests are made of dried leave, twigs, pieces of cloth are also highly flammable.
Other areas they cause damage are in a vegetable garden or by raiding fruit trees around our homes. They will frequently visit bird feeders, raiding the seeds meant for wild birds.
Do Squirrels Transmit Harmful Diseases?
Squirrels can pose a health risk to humans and our pets. They are carriers of parasites such as fleas and ticks. Some well-known disease transmitted by a tick are Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Lyme Disease, and Tularemia. Fleas were also known to be the transmitter of The Plague.
In addition to parasites, Squirrel droppings or feces can harbor Salmonellosis, which is the bacteria that causes Salmonella, and Leptospirosis which is carried in the urine of squirrels.
According to an article found on The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), flying squirrels may transmit Leptospirosis, which can cause symptoms such as headaches, vomiting, fevers, rashes, and liver damage.
In rare instances, squirrels may even carry rabies, which can be passed on to humans through a bite or scratch from a squirrel.
How To Tell If You Have A Squirrel Problem?
Attics or roof spaces are common areas where gray squirrels may be found in our homes.
We tend to not go into our attics regularly making it an ideal area for a squirrel to make a nest.
The first and most common sign of squirrel activity is scratching sounds coming from a wall or ceiling.
If you hear scratching sounds usually in the early morning or evening, indicates pest activity and should be investigated. If you find them before they start having kittens they will be easier to remove.
If you suspect squirrels are nesting in your attic, read my post on How to Get Rid of Squirrels in Your Attic [Step-by-Step].