Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are struggling to survive in places where tree cover is limited. But there are steps we can take to help them survive.
There were many gray squirrels in my city neighborhood, until the trees (oaks, sycamores and maples) were cut down. Now just a few squirrels live near me and visit my bird feeders. I really do like watching the squirrels in my garden. Here is some information to help enhance your habitat for gray squirrels.
Eastern Gray Squirrel Appearance
Adult gray squirrels weigh 1 to 1 1/2 pounds and are 18 to 20 inches in length; about half this length is a broad, bushy tail. Gray squirrels are most active in early mornings and late afternoons.
Most grays are silvery-gray above and off-white below, often with rusty or brownish markings on the sides or tail. Albinism is rare, but melanism (black coloration) is fairly common.
“Black squirrels” can be any shade from dark gray to nearly jet black, often with a brownish tinge.
If you know what an animal eats then you know how to attract them. Squirrels eat mainly nuts and seeds.This includes mast – acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts and beechnuts. They also eat berries, mushrooms, pine seeds, corn (only the germ at the base of the kernel is eaten), dogwood, wild cherry and black gum fruits.
Grays smell out nuts which they bury for winter food. Unrecovered nuts may sprout and grow into trees. In this way, squirrels help ensure continual forest growth.
In early spring, squirrels eat tree buds, a high-energy food. They eat the buds and flowers of red and sugar maples in April, and later may feed on the winged fruits of red maple. These foods have a high moisture content that supplies squirrels’ water needs. Gray squirrels will also drink from available groundwater sources. The squirrels in my garden often drink from my birth baths.
Feeding the Squirrels
At my feeders they like to eat sunflower seeds, peanuts, assorted nuts and corn. And I do put out food just for them. If I put on a hanging tray with what they like to eat, they tend to leave the more expensive bird food alone.
The Grays live both in towns and rural areas. A forest or urban/suburban neighborhood of mixed maples, oaks, hickories and beech, for instance, would make a good squirrel habitat.
Count the trees that live inside and outside your garden. And the ones which line your road or street. If more trees are need this information could be used for city and park planning.
A good squirrel woods should contain many mature mast-producing (nut) trees. And a mixture of other tree and shrub species to give seasonal food variety. Natural den trees and hollow tree cavities for escape purposes are also needed. See the food section above for ideas of what to plant and encourage.
Red, black and scarlet oaks regularly produce mast, while white and chestnut oaks are less reliable. In managing a woodland, four to six hickories should be left per acre (if they are available), as they are heavy mast producers.
See the post Foraging Black Walnuts
Shelter and Places to Raise Young
Gray squirrels live in nests and dens. They build leaf nests in trees near good food supplies in both summer and fall. The leaf nests are cooler than tree dens. They’re about 12 by 16 inches tall and are built of twigs, leaves, grass, bark and other plant materials.
A leafy squirrel’s nest used in summer it is often hidden by tree leaves.
Tree dens are often in cavities where limbs have broken off or in deserted woodpecker holes, usually 40 to 60 feet off the ground. Resident squirrels gnaw back the outer tree bark that, in time, would otherwise seal off den holes.
Old, hollow trees with many openings are rarely used for dens, although they give temporary shelter from predators and hunters. A good den site is usually a tree nearing maturity with one or two openings into a cavity.
Entrance holes are round and seldom over three inches in diameter. If you want to manage a woodland or park for squirrels, keep at least four or five active den trees on each acre. In forests where trees have reached a mast-producing stage but are not mature enough to serve as good den sites, artificial nesting boxes may be set up.
If you want to know how to build squirrel nest boxes, this pdf – Building Nest Structures, Feeders and Photo Blinds for North Dakota Wildlife, can show you how.
Raising Young Squirrels
Gray squirrels breed in late winter or early spring. Watch for the chases. The squirrel in front is usually the female. Following a 44-day gestation period, females bear litters of 4-5 young in late February, March or early April.
The young are usually raised in tree dens and nursed by their mother for 5-7 weeks. Gray squirrels often bear a second litter in July or August. And small grays seen in autumn are from summer litters. Grays are gregarious and do not seem to show territoriality. Three or four squirrels may feed side by side where food is plentiful.
Grays often vocalize often by sounding warning barks and assorted “chucks.” They seem to have their own brand of drama.
Winter is a good time to learn squirrel calls because there are so few animals vocalizing.
Squirrel Life Span
A maximum lifespan for a gray squirrel could be 10 years or even longer, but few live more than two or three years. Hawks, owls, foxes and tree-climbing snakes occasionally kill young squirrels, but adults are not easily taken.
And squirrels are active throughout winter. They don’t hibernate.
Need a good bird feeder to withstand a squirrel attack? Read my story.
See also What are Ground Squirrels?