Urban wildlife species have adapted to being around humans and many thrive in the environment we created. As long as they can find the food, water and shelter needed for survival, an animal will live among humans.
Tree squirrels are one kind of mammals most often seen in our cities. Although more at home in trees, our local tree squirrels do spend quite a bit of time on the ground as well.
Washington has four species of native tree squirrels and two species of introduced tree squirrels. The native tree squirrels are the Douglas squirrel, the red squirrel, the Western gray squirrel and the Northern flying squirrel. The introduced species are the Eastern gray squirrel and the Eastern fox squirrel. Unless you live in rural Pierce County, the squirrels you will most likely see are the Eastern gray squirrels. They have adapted much easier to the city life and are fairly common.
In general, tree squirrels feed mostly on plant material, including seeds, nuts, acorns, tree buds, berries, leaves and twigs. However, since they eat what they can find, they will also eat fungi, insects and occasionally birds’ eggs and nestlings. All of the species found here will store food and use it as it is needed. Hollow trees, stumps and abandoned animal burrows are used as storage sites. They will also take advantage of urban storage areas like empty flower pots, unused vehicles and any box with easy squirrel access. Their smaller cousins like mice and rats will similarly store food.
Tree squirrels hide their food in many different places within their territory. This way if another squirrel or animal finds the cache of food, the squirrel does not lose the entire year’s supply of food. Sometimes they hide food temporarily, until they can move it to a better place. This is called “scatter hoarding.” Food that is forgotten can sometimes germinate and grow into plants that eventually provide more food for future generations of squirrels.
Since tree squirrels do not hibernate and are active year-round, winter is a great time to see if you have squirrels around. With the leaves off the deciduous trees, you can look for the squirrels foraging for food, or you can look for their nests. Although tree squirrels build nests for their babies in hollow trees, abandoned woodpecker cavities and similar hollows, they construct other nests just for shelter. Those nests contain leaves, twigs, shredded bark, mosses, insulation and other soft material. Look up, maybe you have one nearby. What looks like a big blob of old dry leaves up in the tree might actually be a squirrel nest.
Another common sign of squirrels in the area are middens. These are large piles of cone scales under a tree. Tree squirrels will often leave small piles of cone scales around, too. If you take a close look around your yard, you might be able to see where your yard squirrels had their breakfast, their lunch and even their afternoon snack.
There will be baby squirrels around our area beginning as early as March. But the young stay hidden in the nest until they have grown all their fur and are about a month old. After two months, they become more adventurous and start making trips to the ground. And by the end of three months, young squirrels are on their own with no more help from the mother squirrel. There are usually between two to four young squirrels in each litter.
Because tree squirrels are always searching for food, they can sometimes come in conflict with humans. If you feed birds in your yard, you will most likely have squirrels too. There are some bird feeders and items like squirrel baffles that can help prevent the squirrels from eating too much of the bird seed. Or, you can just accept the squirrels and put food out for them too. Just remember that mice and rats like the same kinds of food as squirrels and birds, so you may find some of them visiting as well.
LEARN, DO MORE
If you find that the squirrels in your neighborhood are causing problems for you, visit the state Department of Fish and Wildlife website at wdfw.wa.gov. The section labeled “Living with Wildlife” has many useful suggestions for sharing your world with urban critters.
Meanwhile, in addition to searching for signs of squirrels, this time of year kids can stay warm on their next winter walk by being a squirrel for a little while. They can dart quickly from one place to the next as they pretend they are looking for food while watching for predators – such as a fox or a hawk – that might want to eat them. They can see how far they can leap and pretend to be a squirrel jumping from one tree branch to another. And the kids also can enjoy shelling and eating their favorite kind of nut and making a little midden of their own.