First printed in the
September 23, 1998
nutshell, how to live
with shadow tails
by Sandy Beck
Ten years ago, my husband and I found our
house. Cedar with high ceilings and windows, nestled within
lots of mature trees.
envisioned curling up in front of the
fireplace on chilly
winter mornings to watch warblers, orioles,
and chickadees at
the feeders on our deck.
it turned out, however, there was one
little problem which
didn't shown up in the title search. Our
actually belonged to the nice couple to whom
we wrote our
check. It belonged to a band of squirrels.
Here in Tallahassee, all our houses have
been built on squirrel property.
You see, every wooded lot supports a certain
number of gray squirrels (flying squirrels, too -- but being
nocturnal, they're not as visible). People come along, knock
down a few trees, cut them up, and reassemble them as a house.
That's what the squirrels see.
And sometimes the newcomers also open up
fast food restaurants (bird feeders).
During the summer, mama squirrel looks
suitable spot to build a nest.
If, in one of our tidy-up frenzies, we
chopped down the dead trees or limbs where she would prefer
to nest, another suitable spot might be in the attic of one of
those reassembled trees.
determined squirrel can chew through
most any type of wood,
if she is so inclined. Cedar shingles?
No problem. Gnaw,
lovers, we set up our tent
in the backyard and gave the
squirrels the house. Not so fast.
This was my dream
A tall ladder. A few
squirts of hot sauce
on the chewed shingles. Gnaw . . . .
scurry, scurry, scurry.
We'd established our "big tree"
as off limits to our squirrel neighbors. The next step was to
discourage them from devouring the black oil sunflower seed.
We invested in a "squirrel-proof"
feeder and set the spring-loaded perch to automatically close
when anything heavier than a blue jay landed on it. But these
squirrels enjoy a challenge.
It didn't take long before the little acrobats
had figured out how to hang from the top of the feeder by their
back legs and scoop out the seed without even touching the
squirrels were going to
spend more time trying to get into
the bird seed than I wanted
to spend trying to keep them out.
And, I had to remember, I was
the trespasser here.
Aw heck, give them their own feeder. I
placed a screened tray on the ground.
As long as their tray is stocked with peanuts
and corn, the squirrels leave the sunflower seeds for the chickadees
and cardinals. And since I started making my suet without peanut
butter, they leave that alone too.
And so, that's how we finally made our
Actually, I went a
step further. I began
to admire my little neighbors as they
ate, as they lounged, and
as they traveled in the oaks and
pines overhead, scurrying across
the branches, leaping from
limb to limb, flicking their fluffy
tails and chattering
The Latin word
for squirrel, sciurus,
is derived from two Greek
words, skia, meaning shadow,
and oura, meaning
tail: One who sits in the shadow of
A squirrel lives by his tail. It is his
rudder when he jumps from a tree to our deck, his blanket during
the winter, his signal flag to other gray squirrels, his umbrella
and his sun shade.
other members of the rodent family,
gray squirrels have a
single pair of chisel-like incisors in
each jaw that grows
continuously. These incisors must be worn
down by gnawing
hard nutshells, tree bark, or cedar shingles.
Squirrels also have strong, sharp claws
on their fingers and toes, excellent for digging holes to cache
a supply of nuts, or for gripping onto leaves and branches as
they chase one another through the trees.
In climbing or descending a tree trunk,
a squirrel travels head first. When danger threatens, it slides
around and around the trunk of the tree, keeping just out of
sight of the predator.
Squirrels can't be too cautious. "Our"
squirrels tentatively approach any new food item on their tray
-- a cracker or an ear of corn -- from several different angles.
Finally, the bravest stretches its little body full length, inch
by inch, prepared to bolt if the cracker comes to life.
Another protective device is to remain
motionless, blending into the tree bark. Its alarm call, a series
of rapid clicking sounds, warns all other squirrels in the area
neighbor's cat sneaks into our
yard, the squirrels let us
know. Several agitated squirrels join
in a shrill chorus,
accompanied by agitated tail twitching.
Stranger than Friday night at
begins when a receptive female
calls continuously from a tree
top. Several males gather and
argue about who is "mas
female is racing madly through
the trees with all the males
in noisy pursuit.
researcher, Vagn Flyger of Silver
Springs, Maryland, wrote
that it's the chase which actually stimulates
If he can catch
her, the dominant male
mates with her. During copulation, the
male secretes a wax plug
to prevent further
Then he splits.
No second date. No child
He probably even returns to his buddies
for a little gloating. Male squirrels are communal and often
now searches for a tree cavity.
If none are available (or if
she gets a taste of my hot sauce)
she will build a large nest
from leaves, moss, and twigs. They
are easy to spot in
deciduous trees during the winter. Actually,
she will build
at least three of these nests.
Squirrels, like all mammals who live outdoors
Florida, are plagued by fleas. When the fleas become unbearable
in one nest, mama squirrel picks up her babies, one by one, and
carries them to the next nest. When the second one is infested,
she moves them again, and so on.
About 44 days after breeding, the female
birth to three to five babies. Newborn squirrels are pink
hairless. By the third week, they are covered with gray fur.
By five weeks, their ears and eyes open. By eight weeks the young
squirrels venture out of the nest for short distances and begin
to nibble on nearby nuts, bark, and insects.
By 12 weeks, they are on their own.
Tough times for squirrels
Life in the wild is tough for squirrels.
Most won't see their first birthday. There are a lot of hungry
hawks, owls, foxes, raccoons, bobcats, and snakes out there.
During the winter, when squirrel nests
are exposed, two hawks will work in tandem. One hawk flies into
the nest. The other hawk grabs the squirrel when he jumps out.
Each year, millions of young squirrels
are the victims of attacks by free-roaming cats and dogs. And
large numbers are killed every year by cars.
Countless squirrels are also fried on power
"We try to keep
trees trimmed back
and install squirrels guards, but they
still get past that,"
says Tommy Morgan, Tallahassee
Electric Department Control Center
And of course,
some people, who have no
patience for squirrel antics, will
pick up a gun. But the Tallahassee
Police Department says
that it is illegal to shoot any animal
including BB guns, within city limits.
Last spring, a Florida man was charged
third-degree felony after shooting an arrow into a squirrel
that had been eating his tomatoes, guavas and papayas.
Leafy squirrel nests are easily damaged
in storms. If you find fallen babies, keep them warm and call
St. Francis Wildlife at 386-6296. Or take them (day or night)
to the Northwood Animal Hospital where they will be placed in
an incubator until a St. Francis volunteer arrives.
A lot of people -- especially kids -- find
this sweet, furry baby and want to keep it. That could turn out
to be a deadly decision for the squirrel and a very sad experience
for the child. Unless the baby is raised in the proper environment
with the correct nutrition, it will certainly die. Tiny babies
also need to be fed every three hours.
This fall, people in our town will take
400 orphaned squirrels to St. Francis Wildlife (August
already broken a record). If you would like to become a foster
squirrel parent, attend one of their training classes.
For more information on rescuing baby squirrels,
visit their web site at http://www.freenet.tlh.fl.us/~wild/index.html
or pick up a brochure at Northwood Animal Hospital.
The next time a squirrel helps himself
to your birdseed or digs holes in your lawn to store nuts for
winter, don't head straight for the Have-a-Heart trap. It won't
work anyway. Plenty of squirrels will be waiting in line to fill
its vacant niche.
take a moment to appreciate how
well the squirrel has adapted
to our invasion of its property
and reflect on how this is
one animal who not only can survive
our population explosion,
but is thriving on it.
go throw some peanuts under your birdfeeder.
This time of year, St. Francis receives
lot of calls about the "those hideous-looking tumors on
squirrels." The lumps (Cutaneous warbles) are bot fly larvae
developing under the squirrel's skin. Adult bot flies deposit
their eggs near squirrel nests. The worm-like larva enters the
squirrel's mouth, nose,or other opening and winds through the
body to the skin.
three to seven weeks, the larva emerges
from the skin
and drops to the ground. Usually, the squirrel
quickly. Bot flies do not infest humans in Florida.
humane ways to keep squirrels
out of your
- Mix "Squirrel Away," a product
that contains cayenne pepper, into your bird seed.
- Mount your feeder on a PVC pipe, at least
five feet off the ground and ten feet from tree limbs. Squirrel
claws can't grip the slippery plastic.
- Hang your feeder on a horizontal wire
between two trees or poles. Poke holes in the bottom of plastic
liter bottles and string the bottles on either side of the feeder.
The bottles will spin when the squirrel lands on them.