People watch and feed squirrels almost as much as they do the birds! Whether you think squirrels are adorable little fur balls or think of them as “tree rats,” squirrels are extremely interesting animals! Here are a few fascinating facts about them.
Squirrels have been around for a long time–a squirrel’s habit of gathering and storing food for the winter has allowed the species to survive for more than 35 million years! And to compensate for wear and tear, their teeth never stop growing. That’s why squirrels seem to chew everything—they gnaw on things to keep their teeth “filed down.” Squirrels even grind their teeth in their sleep!
And contrary to the opinion of some birders, a squirrel’s stomach is not a bottomless pit. They need about a pound of food per week and enjoy a varied diet of bugs, nuts, fruit, seeds–and corn!
Ecologically, squirrels are important re-seeders of trees and woodland plants, busily burying their stash of nuts and seeds in preparation for winter. A squirrel can hide as many as 10,000 nuts each fall and can find their buried food under as much as a foot of snow.
Some of these nuts and seeds are not retrieved and grow into plants in the spring. Many squirrels’ winter survival are dependent on remembering where they have deposited their caches. And what’s fascinating is that the portion of their brain that controls memory actually grows by 15% in fall; so it’s believed that squirrels really do remember where they stored all those nuts.
Squirrels can jump a distance of up to 20 feet while in the trees and can fall up to 100 feet without hurting themselves. They have long, muscular hind legs and short front legs that work together to aid in leaping, and their hind legs are double-jointed. This helps them run up and down trees quickly. They’ll use their tail both for balance and as a parachute as they leap from tree to tree. They have five toes on their back feet and four toes on their front.
A few more squirrel facts:
Squirrels can be found on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. The word “squirrel” originally came from the Greek words skia, meaning “shadow,” and oura, meaning “tail.” The hibernating Arctic ground squirrel, or “shadow tail,” is the only warm-blooded mammal able to withstand body temperatures below freezing.
Now that you know a little about squirrels, you may be asking, “Yes, but how do I keep them off my bird feeders?”
Well, first keep your feeders away from anything squirrels can jump from–count on them being able to jump at least 10 feet horizontally and five feet straight up, or vertically. So, your feeder needs to be up on a pole, at least five feet above the ground and, if necessary, employ a pole baffle to keep squirrels from climbing to the feeder.
And then try diversion feeding–it really works! This is simply feeding squirrels in a different part of your yard with foods they like better than bird seed—and that’s mostly corn and peanuts. You can offer convenient critter blocks which you just place on the ground or in a special squirrel feeder.
Some corn-on-the-cob feeders can be extremely entertaining, for both you and the squirrels! So, just keep bird feeders up high and away from jumping-off places and give your squirrels another place to munch. Squirrels are much easier to like when they aren’t raiding your bird feeders! And even if you’re not a squirrel lover, perhaps you will come to find these creatures the interesting and resourceful little animals they are!
Now that the squirrels are fed…
NOTE: This article was originally published in September 2011 and has since been revised for accuracy and completeness.