ARE THE SQUIRRELS UP TO?
by Whit Gibbons
July 9, 2006
have brought forth many questions during the past month, from South Carolina
to Alabama. Two universal questions are, why are there so many gray squirrels
around right now, and how do I keep them out of my bird feeders?
A third question is, why do so many squirrels sacrifice themselves on
two questions are intimately related and really have the same answer:
people who put out birdseed have squirrels rather than birds as their
primary customers because squirrel populations thrive when their natural
food is subsidized, thus creating more squirrels to come to the feeders.
Gray squirrels, also called cat squirrels, live in practically every city
in the eastern United States where hardwoods are found, and they thrive
where people live. Parks where pigeons and squirrels live off nuts and
popcorn provided by tourists seem to be a preferred habitat. The highest
population density of squirrels ever reported was not from a forest but
from Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C.
in the South usually begin mating in January, and females have a gestation
period of about six weeks, normally producing a litter averaging two to
three young in February. Babies are born hairless with their eyes closed,
but leave the nest about two months later, after they are weaned. So,
by early summer, a whole new generation of birdseed eaters has been added
to local squirrel populations. Meanwhile, supplementing food supplies
for suburban squirrel populations probably results in mothers producing
larger litters and also having a second litter during late summer or fall,
thus further increasing the squirrel population size.
your bird feeder for birds and not squirrels seems like a simple solution-until
you try it. Serious backyard bird fanciers have used many approaches to
outsmart squirrels, but as far as I know, none has ever been successful
in a community with an abundance of squirrels. A technique may work at
first, but the squirrels eventually win, through a display of acrobatics
that some find more entertaining than watching birds. The universal conclusion
by most experts on bird feeders is that the best approach in the long
term is to learn to enjoy squirrels. But ask your local seller of bird
feeders about the latest product designed to outwit the squirrels. It
will give the squirrels a new challenge--for a while.
As far as
the question about the seemingly endless number of squirrels that die
on roads, one wonders if they are engaged in a road-kill Olympics competition
with possums for king of the road. Dead kings, of course. Although possums
ordinarily win the I-got-hit-by-a-big-truck awards, squirrels seem to
be trying to break the records in some areas. This may be because of a
mysterious, unexplained biological trait that has been reported occasionally
about gray squirrels--they increase to high densities in an area and make
mass migrations. This does not mean a half- dozen individuals decide to
move a mile or so through the forest. Records exist from the 1800s of
literally thousands of squirrels moving overland in the same direction.
A trip sometimes ended when the migrants reached a large river such as
the Ohio or Mississippi that turned out to be wider than a gray squirrel
can swim. A few recent records exist of smaller mass migrations. These
days, in addition to rivers, busy highways are effective stopping points.
The cause of the migratory behavior is a mystery. And why squirrels would
be migrating from perfectly good bird feeder stations to cross a highway
is even more mysterious.
If you would
like to see some gray squirrels disappear, then consider yourself a supporter
of canebrake rattlesnakes, rat snakes, and red-tailed hawks. When squirrel
densities reach high levels and any of these three predators is around,
you can be sure the number of squirrels will decrease. If you really want
to get rid of squirrels around your house, I cannot recommend putting
a rattlesnake or a hawk in your yard. However, I do know of a documented
case in which someone placed a six-foot rat snake in her backyard and
it eliminated all the squirrels in a single summer. Or maybe they just
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