Squirrels are highly adaptable creatures who have adjusted well to the urban and suburban landscape. Consequently, squirrels are an abundant species worldwide. North America is home to a wide variety of tree squirrels and an even larger number of ground squirrels. In Massachusetts, gray and red squirrels are most common, while the fox squirrel and gray squirrels are the species most frequently involved in conflicts with humans.
Red squirrels are the smaller of the ground squirrels, averaging about 12 inches long, while gray squirrels are typically between 17 and 20 inches long. Fox squirrels are the largest tree squirrel and measure 10 to 15 inches in length. Flying squirrels also inhabit Massachusetts, but primarily emerge at night. Similar in size to fox squirrels, they average 10 to 15 inches, but also have flat tails for gliding through the air.
Squirrels primarily consume plant matter, and their diet varies with the seasons. They typically eat and store acorns and other nuts underground, which provide their caches of food for the winter. Spring flowers and growing buds are also eaten as the weather warms, and in the summer they often eat fruits and berries.
Eastern gray and fox squirrels have two litters each year, the first between February and April and the second between August and September. Squirrel activity is highest during mating season, and after young squirrels, called “kittens,” are driven out of their mothers’ nests to disperse into new territory.
POSSIBLE CONFLICTS & SOLUTIONS
While many enjoy watching squirrels in their own backyards, these intriguing and acrobatic animals may also cause frustration if they enter and nest in our homes. Squirrels naturally den and raise young in tree cavities and leaf nests, using trees for food and protection from predators and the elements. However, attics, chimneys, and small openings in buildings are also very appealing to them. They often enter the house through uncapped chimneys, unscreened vents, or openings left by loose or rotted boards; they can sometimes cause damage by building nests in walls and floorboards. Keeping your house in good repair, trimming back tree branches that extend over the roof of your house and installing a chimney cap are the best ways to prevent this.
If a squirrel becomes an unwanted tenant in your home or building, know that in most cases squirrels are easier to deal with because, unlike most other wild animals, most species of squirrels are active during daylight hours — in the early morning and then later in the afternoon. First, in order to ensure that babies are not orphaned, it is critical to check that young are not present. Locate the nest and listen for noises that will indicate the presence of young, such as squeaking, whining and rustling. Remember not to touch or approach any nest that you find, as your scent may deter the mother from returning and claiming her young. If young are present, please tolerate them until they are old enough to accompany the adults out of the structure.
If it is certain that young are not present, locate the hole that the squirrels are using to enter and exit the structure and install a one-way door over it. This will allow the squirrels to leave through the door but will prevent them from re-entering through it. After two weeks, after you are certain that all animals have left the structure, remove the one-way door and seal up the entry hole with construction materials to prevent other animals from moving in and taking advantage of the available good habitat.
If a squirrel is stuck in your chimney, tie one end of a rope around the chimney or affix it to a secure object on your roof and hang the other end of the rope down the chimney. The squirrel will use the rope to climb out.
If a squirrel is trapped inside a room in your home, know that the squirrel does not want to be there. Close all doors and windows leading from the room to the interior of the house. Open all windows and doors leading from that room to the outdoors. Give the squirrel a way out and he will use it. If a squirrel is stuck in a second floor room, open a window and hang sheets out that window so that one end is as close to the ground as possible. The squirrel will use the sheets to make it safely to the ground.
If a squirrel is digging in your lawn, eating your ornamental plants and bulbs, and/or stealing food from bird feeders, know that squirrels are only doing what is natural to them to find food. Tolerance is especially important if at all possible during the colder times of the year. Bulbs can be protected by soaking them in certain repellents before planting, or by planting them below 1 x 1 inch wire or plastic screening. Spraying repellents on ornamental plants can help deter inquisitive squirrels. Wrapping ripening fruit trees with netting and using various squirrel-proof bird feeders can also keep them away. Most gardening and hardware stores sell netting and squirrel-proof feeders. Installing a motion sensor attachment on your sprinkler will also encourage the squirrels to look elsewhere for their next meal.
PUBLIC HEALTH CONCERNS
Squirrels are carriers of disease organisms that can affect humans, but are rarely documented as doing so. Rather, squirrels are often regarded as a beneficial indicator of environmental quality. As in all mammals, rabies can occur in squirrels, but squirrel transmission of the disease to humans is not documented.