Most New Englanders are familiar with the ever-present gray squirrels. An extremely adaptable species, squirrels are at home everywhere from midtown parks to oak forests.
Gray squirrels are typically 17 to 20 inches long. They have large fluffy tails that are almost half their body length. They are typically gray with a white underside, but some can be black, brown, or white. They are comfortable in suburban and urban areas.
You’re most likely to confuse gray squirrels with the smaller but similarly-shaped American red squirrels. While some gray squirrels can be reddish, American red squirrels are much smaller, averaging about 12 inches long, and they have a white ring around the eye. They are also less tolerant of urban areas.
Northern and southern flying squirrels also inhabit Massachusetts, but they only emerge at night. They average about 10 to 15 inches long and have flat tails for gliding through the air.
Squirrels are alert, inquisitive, and aggressive rodents. They can move as rapidly through treetops as they do on the ground and easily negotiate vines, shrubbery, telephone wires, downspouts, and walls of brick, stucco, or wood. They can jump six feet straight up and can launch themselves a distance of 10 feet or more from a tree, building, or railing to reach a bird feeder.
Squirrels are busiest at dawn and late afternoon. They remain active year-round, and can feed during rain or snowstorms, generally keeping dry and warm under their broad tail, which they arch and spread over their back. Because their incisor teeth grow constantly, squirrels must constantly sharpen them by gnawing bark, wood, plastic, metal, or whatever is available.
In the wild, a squirrel’s average life span rarely exceeds four years. Predators that control squirrel numbers include hawks, owls, foxes, and house cats. People hunt and trap them for sport, fur, and food. Automobiles also kill these animals.
You can find squirrels wherever nut-bearing trees such as oak, hickory, or beech grow. When nuts are abundant, squirrels bury food for use during the winter. A highly developed sense of smell enables them to readily locate the cached food.
In early spring, squirrels feed on buds and flowers of red and sugar maples, on tulip or crocus bulbs and blossoms, and later in the spring on the seeds of maple and elm trees. In summer they consume berries, apples, corn, and other grains and become predatory, taking birds' eggs and nestlings from open nests or gnawing their way into birdhouses to get at them. Of course, bird-feeding stations provide a bonanza of nourishment. Read More
Two mating seasons occur per year, one in late January or February and again in late May or June. Courtship and mating are characterized by noisy, energetic chases through the treetops.
Following a 44 day gestation, the first litter of three to five young is born in March or early April and the second in August or September. The eyes of the young open at four to five weeks and they’re weaned at 10 or 12 weeks. The first litter usually remains with the mother until the second litter is born in late summer. The young born in late summer stay with her until the following spring.
Gray squirrels usually maintain two dwellings. The large leaf and twig nests that are used in summer are a familiar sight high in the crotch of a tree when the nests are exposed to view in the fall. These nests are sometimes used as temporary quarters in winter if a food supply is nearby. However, the preferred winter home of this species is a more permanent and protected den, usually in a cavity of a living hardwood tree or in the attic or eaves of a house.
Despite their name, gray squirrels are not always gray. The squirrel changes color slightly during its twice-yearly molt, becoming tawny gray in summer and silvery gray in winter. The rare squirrel that appears all white is technically a gray squirrel, but with a reduced amount of dark pigment. These squirrels are considered leucistic or partially albinistic. In order to be a true albino, the squirrel would also have pink eyes. Black squirrels are also gray squirrels, and exist due to a genetic mutation.
The color variations are the result of a genetic mutation that causes excessive pigmentation. This phenomenon occurs in many species, and the individuals are called "melanistic," which refers to melanin, a chemical of pigmentation. The process of natural selection determines whether the black morph will be successful in a particular region.
Although occasional melanistic gray squirrels are found throughout the gray squirrel's entire range (approximately the eastern half of the United States), the incidence seems to be greater in the North. Massachusetts has established populations located near Springfield and scattered throughout the suburban Boston area.
The well-established colony of black-phase gray squirrels at the Stanley Park preserve in Westfield, Massachusetts, is thought to have descended from a pair of black-phase gray squirrels that were brought there from Michigan and released in 1948. It is likely that the melanistic squirrels seen in the Amherst, Southwick, and Springfield areas are related to the Westfield squirrels.
The rare squirrel that appears all white is also technically a gray squirrel, but with a reduced amount of dark pigment. These squirrels are considered leucistic or partially albinistic. In order to be a true albino, the squirrel would also have pink eyes.
Situations & Solutions
Although people often delight in the playful antics of these creatures, squirrels can become destructive when they enter houses. For people who like to feed birds, squirrels are Public Enemy Number One. While annoying, they pose no public health risk.
Squirrels & Bird Feeders
Much like the birds we try to attract, squirrels love to eat seeds and can only assume the food you’ve put out is for their benefit. That being said, there are some options to help dissuade a squirrel from feasting on feeders. Learn More
Squirrels in Homes
Squirrels can sometimes turn up in attics, eaves, and walls; occasionally in chimneys; and maybe even your living areas. (To determine if it is a squirrel or a mouse, listen closely–mice make noise at night, while squirrels are heard coming and going in the morning and mid-afternoon). If the squirrel is visible, try to confine it to one area, open windows or doors and leave the animal alone. Usually the squirrel will discover the exits and happily leave on its own.
A squirrel that accidentally appears in a chimney or fireplace is incapable of climbing out. To help it escape, tie a rope (1/2-inch thick) around the top of the chimney and lower the other end all the way down to the damper. During the daytime, the squirrel will climb up the rope and out of the chimney.
If the squirrel is in the fireplace itself, bait a Hav-a-hart trap with peanut butter on bread, make noise to drive the squirrel away from the screen, slide the trap into the fireplace and close the screen. Leave the room so the squirrel does not feel threatened by your presence, and eventually it should enter the trap.
If a squirrel has taken up residence, exclusion provides the only long-term solution for deterring squirrels away from areas where they are not wanted.
Please Note: Baby squirrels are likely to be present between March and May and again in August through September. During this time, delay any exclusion attempt for 10 to 12 weeks, when the young are incapable of accompanying the mother outside.
Start by determining where the entrance hole is located. This is often best done as the squirrel comes and goes on its morning feeding trips. If you find multiple openings, permanently seal all but one. (You’ll want to dislodge the squirrel so that you can repair or close off the entrance hole(s) without trapping the animal inside.) If they live in the attic, you can usually encourage them to leave by making noise as you enter the attic during the day.
If you can’t determine whether the squirrel has exited, install a one-way door. After two or three days, if you don’t hear noises in the attic or eaves, remove the trap door and secure the opening with new wood covered with heavy gage hardware cloth (heavy half-inch wire mesh) extended six inches beyond the hole in all directions, to prevent the squirrels from chewing their way back in. Should you inadvertently block a squirrel inside, catch it in a Hav-a-hart trap and release it outdoors.
When undertaking the repairs, ensure permanent exclusion of squirrels (and other animals) by covering all vents, louvers, and chimneys with hardware cloth and by replacing all rotten wood.