First printed in the Tallahassee Democrat, September 23, 1998

 

In a nutshell, how to live with shadow tails

by Sandy Beck

Ten years ago, my husband and I found our dream house. Cedar with high ceilings and windows, nestled within lots of mature trees.

I envisioned curling up in front of the fireplace on chilly winter mornings to watch warblers, orioles, and chickadees at the feeders on our deck.

As it turned out, however, there was one little problem which didn't shown up in the title search. Our property hadn't 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 for a suitable spot to build a nest.

If, in one of our tidy-up frenzies, we have 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.

A determined squirrel can chew through most any type of wood, if she is so inclined. Cedar shingles? No problem. Gnaw, gnaw, gnaw.

Being animal lovers, we set up our tent in the backyard and gave the squirrels the house. Not so fast. This was my dream house.

A tall ladder. A few squirts of hot sauce on the chewed shingles. Gnaw . . . . scurry, scurry, scurry. Silence.

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 perch.

Clearly, these 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 peace.

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 away.

Not just a tail

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 its tail.

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.

Like 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 of danger.

Whenever a 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 Hooters

Courtship begins when a receptive female calls continuously from a tree top. Several males gather and argue about who is "mas macho."

Soon the female is racing madly through the trees with all the males in noisy pursuit.

Squirrel researcher, Vagn Flyger of Silver Springs, Maryland, wrote that it's the chase which actually stimulates ovulation.

If he can catch her, the dominant male mates with her. During copulation, the male secretes a wax plug to prevent further breeding.

Then he splits. No second date. No child support.

He probably even returns to his buddies for a little gloating. Male squirrels are communal and often nest together.

The female 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 in 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 gives birth to three to five babies. Newborn squirrels are pink and 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 lines.

"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 System Operator.

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 with anything, including BB guns, within city limits.

Last spring, a Florida man was charged with a third-degree felony after shooting an arrow into a squirrel that had been eating his tomatoes, guavas and papayas.

Orphaned babies

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 about 400 orphaned squirrels to St. Francis Wildlife (August has 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.

Instead, 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.

Then go throw some peanuts under your birdfeeder.

 

 Squirrel "tumors"

This time of year, St. Francis receives a 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.

In three to seven weeks, the larva emerges from the skin and drops to the ground. Usually, the squirrel heals quickly. Bot flies do not infest humans in Florida.

 

 Other humane ways to keep squirrels out of your birdfeeder:

  • 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.