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Thursday, February 5, 2015

Critter of the Month: Gray Squirrel – Adorable or Pest? You Be the Judge

"Come on up and learn about us, humans!"
Larry, Moe & Curly
The Eastern Gray Squirrel is also called Sciurus carolinensis.  They are EVERYWHERE in my neighborhood.

 My home is located in their perfect habitat: an area with many mature oak and pine trees along with neighborhood gardens and bird feeders full of seed.  In addition, there are few if any predators. The coyotes do not enter our neighborhood, and for some reason I haven’t seen many birds of prey overhead. Their other potential predators simply don’t live in this area... so the squirrels are taking over!

Squirrels are very fun to watch, and very clever.  They seem to be able to figure out how to get birdseed out of a feeder no matter how many “squirrel proof” gizmos you buy.  They scamper and jump among the branches of trees with amazing ease.  They chase each other and chatter. 

On the other hand, they can make a mess in the garden.  They gnaw at perennials, eat the fruit off trees, and eat spring bulbs.  They drive dogs crazy.  Sometimes, they even nest in the roof!  They are some of the cutest pests you will ever see!

So let’s learn more about them!  Here is some information:

Typical Gray Squirrel Coloring.
Gray squirrels are rodents.  That is to say, they are furry mammals with sharp incisors for gnawing.  They have sleek bodies and fluffy tails.  Both sexes look basically the same, with no difference in
color or body size.   They are typically dark to pale gray in color with some cinnamon tones to their coat.  1 in 10,000 may be black, and even more rarely they may be albino.  In my neighborhood, we have all 3 colors!  They weight between 11.91 – 26.43oz (338-750g), and range from 14.96 -- 20.67inches (380.0-525.0mm) in length.

1 in 10,000 American Squirrels Has Black Fur
Average Lifespan:
12.5 years in the wild and around 20 in captivity.

Geographic Distribution: 
In the eastern United States from a bit west of the Missisissipi, east to the Atlantic coast and north into Canada.  They may also be found in Scotland, Ireland, England and Italy.

Gray squirrels live in mature forests with mixture of tree types and good food supply.  They make their nests out of piles of leaves and twigs in trees.  The nests can be seen in the branches of these trees at a distance of  30-45 feet above ground.
The Rare Albino Squirrel Lives in Our Neighborhood!

 What They Eat: 
Gray Squirrels are omnivores. They eat the nuts, flowers and buds of 24 species of oak.  They also eat the nuts, seeds and fruit from hickory, pecan, walnut, beech, elm, buckeye, horse chestnut, hackberry, mulberry, maple, dogwood, hawthorn, black gum, cherry, hazelnut, hornbeam, ginko, cedar, hemlock, pine, and spruce.  In addition they eat insects, bones, bird eggs, nestlings, fungus and frogs.  They become pests to gardeners when they eat garden plants such as bulbs, fruit, flowers, herbaceous plants, corn, and wheat. They also sharpen their teeth on branches and bark.
"Nom, nom, nom, nom!"

They are known to hoard food by burying it in holes for later. They locate their stores later via memory and smell.  

Gray squirrels are territorial.  They guard the areas near their nest and where they find food.
They are most active 2 hours after sunrise and a few hours before sunset.
They communicate by vocalization (chattering), tail flicking and smell. 

Squirrels reach sexual maturity by 15 months of age.  They breed twice a year between December -- February and again between May --June.  Gestation lasts 44 weeks and the litters contain 2 to 8 pups each.  The babies are born naked and weigh 13-18g.  They nursed by their mothers and drink milk like most mammals.  They are generally weaned by 10 weeks age, and reach adult size by 9 months age.  

"Home at last!"
Humans, weasels, red foxes, bobcats, grey wolves, minks, lynx, coyotes, owls, falcons, and hawks all hunt and eat squirrels.  

Squirrels are food for predators, spread seeds & fungal spores to new locations, and host parasites (ticks, fleas, lice, roundworms). 

There are several products sold to help deter squirrels. These include coyote urine, motion-sensor sprinklers, electric devices that emit an annoying high-frequency sound, and fake owls.  These function with varying degrees of success.   You can also set live traps to catch and release squirrels elsewhere.  Please do NOT poison squirrels.  If you try this, you will almost certainly end up poisoning other animals by mistake – possibly even your own pets or even children!

Advice for Gardeners:
  • If you want to protect your bulbs: first build a cage of chicken wire around the bulbs, then bury the entire cage into the ground during planting time.  This will keep animals from digging up the bulbs and eating them.
  •  If you want to protect your vegetable garden:  When constructing a raised garden, build the “box” or sides of the garden out of wood, stone, tires or other materials.  Then, lay chicken wire down against the ground and a couple of inches up the side of the “box”.  Place the topsoil
    A comfortable branch.
    on top of the wire.  This will keep animals from digging into the garden from below.  You can also place chicken wire above the topsoil to keep animals from digging downward.  Next, build a fence around the garden. Place streamers or spinners around the fence to deter the squirrels, or use one of the repellant devices mentioned above. 
  • If you have a plant or plants that are very tempting to squirrels, you may want to consider building a chicken-wire fence with a roof over it (like a wire box) to protect the plants. 
  • Allow your dog and cat to roam the yard and do what they do best.
I hope that this information is useful to you, dear reader!
Now, go outside, and watch some squirrels frolic!  Go!  You know you want to!
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Whatever you do, NEVER stop observing and learning from nature. 

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