Wild animals are part of what makes nature so magical, and watching them can be highly enjoyable. While it’s important to coexist with animals in relative peace, they can cause countless problems when they take up residence in our homes or gardens. In this series, our Wildlife Management Specialist, Shawn Weeks, will educate us about some common household pests, and share some strategies for keeping them under control without dangerous chemicals.
Habitat and History
Gray squirrels, Sciurus carolinensis, are rodents that can be found as far north as Quebec, Ontario, and New Brunswick, as far south as Florida, and west into eastern Texas and Manitoba. They have also been introduced into Washington, British Columbia and Vancouver Island. In addition to suburban and urban settings, gray squirrels prefer upland, hardwood forests.
Despite their name, gray squirrels exhibit various colors, including black and red, though they are primarily gray, with white sides and underbellies. They generally weigh from one to one and a half pounds and can be anywhere from fifteen to twenty one inches long. They have bushy tails that are usually as long as their head and body.
Gray squirrels are active year round. In the fall they gather and bury their winter food supply. This burying is done randomly. They will dig for their food supply as needed, using their sense of smell to locate and dig for it.
They live in trees, either in cavities or leaf nests they make and suspend in the treetops. They are extreme climbers and jumpers who, when on the ground are very cautious, wary, nervous, and excitable. When they sense danger, they will immediately head for trees to escape danger. Gray squirrels have keen senses of smell, hearing, and sight. They are somewhat social, as opposed to their very territorial red squirrel cousins, and will tolerate other squirrels in their habitat.
Gray squirrels are a popular small game species throughout much of their range.
Gray squirrels eat a variety of mast including maple seeds, acorns, hickory nuts, butternuts, and beechnuts, along with mushrooms, berries, and some field crops, such as corn and pumpkins.
Gray squirrels mate in late winter and early spring. They have a forty four day gestation period, and bear litters of two to seven young. They are born blind and helpless, but are swiftly weaned and are independent at eight to ten weeks. There is usually a second litter in mid summer. The young are born in the parents’ nest.
Problems, Solutions, and Health Concerns
The most common problem associated with gray squirrels is their ability to take up residence in people’s homes. They associate holes in eaves, soffits and roofs with a tree cavity, their natural nests, and move right in. Once inside, they consider it theirs, and they can be very difficult to get rid of.
Gray squirrels will tear up insulation in an attic and use it to make a nest. They will also chew through electrical lines. If gray squirrels are in your dwelling or building, it’s usually because of an existing problem, such as a small hole in a soffit or eave. One could also have a rotted louver that enables them chew through to gain access to your attic. Scratching, gnawing, and pitter-patter sounds are a sure clue that you have a squirrel problem.
An Ounce of Prevention
Prevention is key to keeping gray squirrels, or any other animal, from taking up residence in your home or building. Keep trees and overhanging branches away from your structure. Make sure all parts of the exterior of your building are maintained, and repair any rotted or damaged areas of eaves and soffits. Also, make sure your roof is in good condition.
The best approach to take, if you have an infestation of gray squirrels, is to live trap them at their access point, if possible. Nail a live/box trap at the opening and bait it with peanut butter, nuts, apple slices, etc. If heights aren’t your thing, you can place the traps in the heavily traveled areas they are using to gain access. Once you’ve caught a squirrel, check to make sure there are no young or other squirrels inside your home.
It is critically important that you check for more than one squirrel before sealing up any opening. They are very excitable and will cause extensive damage if trapped inside. Also, no one wants to leave behind defenseless young in a nest. The young will most likely die, and the adults will try to gain access to the area by any means, leaving you with more damage than you had before you started.
If you’re certain your home is free of squirrels, permanently seal up any openings with galvanized 1/4” wire mesh, plywood, new siding, etc. Once the opening is sealed, it should be safe to release the gray squirrel from the trap, so long as you have made sure to eliminate any factors that might helping them to gain access.
If a gray squirrel somehow gains access to the living area of your home, do not attempt to snare or noose it. As mentioned before, they are very excitable creatures. If you run around a room or house trying to catch a squirrel, they will tear up, knock down, and basically demolish your property and furnishings. Instead, try to calmly and swiftly enter the area and open a door or window. Then immediately leave the room and wait outside for the squirrel to calm down and leave on its own.
Gray Squirrels: Bird Feeder Raiders
Another common problem associated with gray squirrels is their propensity for raiding, and sometimes even damaging, bird feeders. To prevent this problem, make sure when installing bird feeders that they are placed on steel poles at least six feet off the ground and far away from bushes and overhanging branches. Install a metal, cone shaped baffle at the base of the feeder. Do not hang bird feeders from anything. Squirrels have no trouble climbing down ropes, wires, cables, and heavy duty strings to get what they want.
One other problem that is encountered from time to time is that gray squirrels will sometimes get stuck down inside a chimney and find themselves unable to climb out. The best solution for this problem is to drop a rope down the chimney until it hits the bottom. Then place the other end outside on the ground. Weigh this end down, or tie it off. The squirrel will be able to use the rope to climb out. Once the squirrel exits the chimney, pull the rope out of it from the ground. Then install a chimney cap to keep squirrels, or any other animal or bird for that matter, from entering the chimney again.