We have all known a squirrel or two. Some of us have experienced the wrath of an enraged female squirrel whose young are trapped inside a place built for humans, and the subsequent damage to our homes. The best practice is prevention first.
There are more than 200 squirrel species worldwide, including one that is three feet long. In Massachusetts, on the South Shore of Boston, we see two species of tree squirrels, the gray and red, on a regular basis. Northern and southern flying squirrels also inhabit Massachusetts, but emerge only at night. Squirrels are classified as a game species in Massachusetts, and have their own, regulated hunting seasons. Depending on your location, the season runs from either September or October until January.
The red squirrel, also known as a pine squirrel, is smaller than the gray squirrel, and has an obvious rufous color. Since they avoid urban areas and neighborhoods, we don’t see them with the same frequency as gray squirrels. The red squirrel spends its time defending a year-round and exclusive territory in conifer forests and sometimes hardwood areas. Their diet is primarily spruce seeds and they store cones for overwintering. Clever like the gray squirrel, the red squirrel will gather mushrooms, truffles and fungi and set them on top of branches so that they dry in the afternoon sun.
Red squirrels produce fewer offspring than the gray squirrel and while home invasions are rare, they too have been known to inhabit Massachusetts’ houses. They generally have more than one nest in their defended territory and will move their litters from place to place. This natural behavior must be taken into consideration when eliminating red squirrels from one’s home. Just because one nest is found empty, does not mean there aren’t more constructed out of the finest wall insulation. And since the red squirrel can actually inherit a territory from its mother, don’t be surprised if you see another red squirrel take occupancy next year.
The familiar antics of the the Eastern gray squirrel can turn to destruction if given an opportunity. They will of course raid our bird feeders, gnaw on houses to sharpen their growing incisor teeth and making nesting cavities in our attics and walls. Their theory-of-mind thinking, agility and creativity make the Eastern gray squirrel a formidable creature to come to terms with.
The gray squirrel is a hoarding animal that claims multiple caches for its bulging stores of food. If it comes upon your open tub of hulled sunflower seeds or bag of peanuts, it will create temporary hiding places for this abundance, and later set about to move it farther away from the source. The main thing for the squirrel is to get it, and to get it now. Afterwards, paranoia takes over and all pieces of individual food must be carefully hidden.
Squirrels literally have thousands of entombed caches every season, and a spatial memory far better than ours. It is thought that they use multiple landmarks to determine all of their treasured locations, many of which hold only one morsel. Burying one nut in each hole is a strategy to protect their winter food. If another animal finds one buried nut, the squirrel still has thousands more. Squirrels are adept at deceiving other animals by pretending to bury things, and actually go through the entire routine, all the while keep the food in their mouth. While winter survival is the goal of the hoarding, spring is the hardest time because buried acorns, nuts and seeds start to sprout open making them inedible for the squirrels.
Squirrels nest in the forks of trees, or in tree cavities excavated by birds. Using leaves, twigs, and sometimes softer items like chewed rope, they will construct “dreys,” large enough for both male and female to stay warm and dry. The drey is temporary and will often be rebuilt in different spots until a nest is needed. The nest requires more shelter and if a cavity cannot be found, or your attic, the tree nest is constructed to be fully weatherproof.
Squirrels breed once or twice a year and give birth to a varying number of young after three to six weeks. Baby squirrels come into the world without any fur or teeth, and they are blind. The female squirrel looks after her young for about 8 or 10 weeks in the nest.
Our South Shore homes provide squirrels with a multitude of luxuries. Since they have four front teeth that never stop growing, squirrels need to constantly wear these down. A two by four will do just fine, but so will your electrical wiring. There is often at least one, if not more, plentiful food supplies easily accessed around and inside our houses. We provide them space much like branch forks in the trees, but our attics are warm, dry, and filled with available insulation where squirrels can safely build their nests without concern for predators like hawks.
No squirrels yet?
If you are confident your home is shut tight because you have diligently gone round and round searching for any gaps, it probably is. However, just because the squirrel eyeballing you and your home cannot a find an immediate or easy way in, chewing a new entrance is easy. Climbing from the ground up, or leaping from a slingshot tree branch makes any upper area a possibility in the squirrel’s mind.
Step one in prevention is, of course, removing all potential food sources. Move your bird feeder a bit farther from the house, and keep compost away as well. Do not leave your bird seed supply in the garage or shed since chewing through plastic is not a problem for the squirrel.
Take a look at the trees around your house. Determine if any branches or cables could make a pathway for the gymnastics of a squirrel. Next check to see if the sides of your house have places where squirrels could attach their feet for a little climbing exercise. Gaps in shingles will do, as will drain pipers, gutters, and trim. Baffles will be needed in these areas so that the squirrel’s obstacle course ends.
Squirrels living in your house?
If you have heard the racket of the Eastern gray squirrel in your house, do NOT rush out to seal off all the entrances thinking that this will take care of the unwanted squirrels living inside your home. This belief relies on the notion that all squirrels go out all day and sleep all night.
This is a common mistake made by homeowners. When an active squirrel hole is blocked off one of three things can happen.
The first is that the squirrels are inside the house and become trapped in the attic, ceilings and walls. They will become frantic and chew through cement to get out. One homeowner had a family of squirrels chew their way through a ceiling and into the second floor of their house. If they don’t escape, after about two weeks the aroma of decomposing squirrels cloaks your entire house, and there is no way to trace it.
Another scenario is that the squirrels are outside when their hole is blocked and now cannot get back into the space they call home. You then have some angry squirrels to contend with. When squirrels are angry, because they want to go home and the door is locked, they just make a new door! If you did all the right things to close up their hole, the squirrel will chew a new hole somewhere else. Their teeth are like metal detectors. They chew here and there, causing damage, until they find one weak spot.
Wait, it can get worse. What if the female squirrel left her cozy, safe nest to feed, and she has babies in your attic? “Too bad!” you say? This female will not be angry, she will be engulfed with rage, and maternal ferociousness. Her babies are trapped inside, unable to escape, and she cannot get in to feed them. The most profound damage to homes is done by female squirrels. Female squirrels are second only to female raccoons in terms of the damage they are capable of. Not only will you have a savage female squirrel tearing your house to shreds, but you’ll also have dead baby squirrels to deal with.
You can see the importance of determining exactly what might be going on with the squirrel in your house before you “deal” with it. If it’s February through May, or August through October, you can be sure that babies are part of the package. Many people actually wait a few weeks until the babies grow old enough to leave with their mother since they won’t survive without her. That is not a DIY project. Squirrels are fine at a distance, but they do carry disease, and a protective mother is likely to attack whatever it is that is threatening her babies.
Trapping and relocation is still thought of as a humane way to remove squirrels and other wild animals, but it is illegal in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to trap and relocate any wildlife, for any reason. This law is for the safety of all concerned, and also because most squirrels, and other wildlife, do not survive the move. As a property owner, you may trap an animal, but are then required to release it on your property. Sometimes this becomes necessary to remove squirrel families from attics. It is generally suggested that, if it comes to this, a professional handle the logisitcs.
If it is this time of year, or you can determine with a high degree of certainty, that there are no juvenile squirrels in your house, there could be some easy measures that will remind said squirrel to leave.
You can try things like lighting the area, playing talk radio, blowing air into the area, and even just banging floorboards. Always leave one exit open for the squirrels to leave. Some homeowners make a sheet metal funnel and attach it, wide side towards the house, so that the animals can leave, but cannot return.
Save your money and skip all of the squirrel repellants on the market. None of them work. Hot sauce is more promising to spray in your garden areas and carefully placed ammonia using safety precautions will deter most animals. You can also soak one end of a towel in ammonia and leave it in attic corners or drag it along edges of your attic floor. Be sure the squirrels have a way to exit once they get a whiff of the ammonia. Apple cider vinegar is also used as an alternative to ammonia.
For anyone who cannot resolve a wildlife problem on his or her own,contract with a licensed Problem Animal Control Agent (PAC). PAC agents act on behalf of the landowner and are constrained by the same regulations regarding capture, release, transport and euthanasia (Animals captured by PAC agents may not be relocated elsewhere).
By acting sooner rather than later, and patching up any possible entrances for squirrels, you can stay on the side of prevention. Ultimately homeowners carry the responsibility for not tempting wildlife into becoming pests and avoiding the potential damages caused by squirrels and other wildlife.