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Squirrels’ Dwelling Preferences

Dear Bird Folks,

How much do you know about squirrels? Specifically, what exactly are the squirrels’ living arrangements? Judging from how unfriendly they are towards each other I figure, except for breeding, they like to be alone. But lately I’ve been seeing a pair running up and down a tree with mouthfuls of leaves. Do they live together at night and only fight while feeding?

-Kevin, Sandwich


At First Kevin,

I wasn’t going to answer your question because I had two concerns. The first thing that worried me was your inquiring about the “squirrels’ living arrangements.” This information could get into the hands of one of those extremist groups that feel they need to control how everybody and everything lives their lives. The squirrels have enough people upset with them already without having a group like that after them. The other thing is that I usually only write about birds. Have you not noticed a theme running through these columns? However, in the spirit of the season, I’ll be happy to answer your question. Plus, if there ever was a time of year when folks might be tolerant of reading nice things about the ubiquitous Eastern Gray Squirrel it’s now, so I’d better go for it.

When the squirrels aren’t busy eating from every bird feeder known to man, they are doing more natural squirrelly things, like hiding food for the winter. The squirrel’s cuter pal, the chipmunk, gathers nuts and seeds in the fall and stores them all in one location, which is safe underground, next to their burrow. You would think that squirrels would do something similar, only instead of underground, store their food high up in a tree. But food up in a tree isn’t safe. Squirrels can’t take a chance of having their stash discovered and raided. Without a cache of food, they won’t survive the winter. Instead, the squirrels bury acorns, seeds and nuts, one at a time, in hundreds of locations, an inch or so in the ground. Even if a few locations are discovered and eaten, they will have plenty of other food hidden around the neighborhood.

Birds that also stash food, such as chickadees, have to remember each location because they don’t have a good sense of smell. But squirrels have an excellent nose and can sniff out those hidden nuts, even when covered by a foot of snow. The squirrel’s nose is so keen that many underprivileged countries hire our squirrels to replace the more expensive contraband sniffing dogs. And in twenty years, no birdseed has ever been smuggled into any of those countries.

Squirrels don’t do any kind of hibernating. They are out there dealing with the cold and the snow like the rest of us. Most songbirds spend the night in a thicket or cavity of some sort, but squirrels actually build their own shelters. We’ve all seen those basketball-sized bundles of brown leaves high up in a tree. Most people refer to those bundles as “squirrel nests,” when they probably aren’t nests at all, but a shelter called a “dray.” A dray? Have you ever heard of that term? Me neither. Who came up with that name? Must be from Europe.

As you noted Kevin, squirrels don’t get along very well. They usually sleep alone. Their sleeping arrangement is one bed, one squirrel. Although, they will occasionally spend a night huddled with other squirrels during periods of frigid weather. Please don’t let the extremists find out about that last part or it will be all over the talk shows.

Squirrels usually have two litters per year, one in the early spring and one in the summer. The female gives birth and raises the young squirrels all by herself. (Before all you women get all worked-up about this, go see “March of the Penguins.” It’s the men that take the hit in that world.) The young are most often raised in a tree cavity, called a “den.” (Squirrels will sometimes build a den in our attics too, but we aren’t getting into that right now. Try to keep with the spirit of the season.) In addition to a den, a squirrel will also build a summer home, a warm weather dray. The mother may move her baby squirrels into it if the den is discovered by predators or becomes overrun with bugs and fleas or filled-up with too many of your birdseed shells.

The reason why you saw two squirrels carrying leaves could simply be that two separate are squirrels adding material to two different drays. Or it could be a mother and a young squirrel. Sometimes the babies of a late litter spend the winter with mom. Either way, I’m glad you took the time to appreciate the squirrels instead of cursing them. Hey, maybe for the upcoming year everyone should make a New Year’s resolution to enjoy, instead of cursing squirrels. Think anyone will do it? Yeah, me neither.