If you are living in the UK, you will spot squirrels in most big parks. You'll typically see grey squirrels, but the native squirrel in Britain is the red squirrel. If you're very lucky, you may even see the black squirrel! The black squirrel is a colour variant of the grey squirrel, and you can mostly see these in the southern UK counties. The grey squirrel isn't native to the UK but was introduced in the 19th century. While they look cute from a distance, the grey squirrel has effectively played the most significant part in the decline of the red squirrel, which is now only seen in very small pockets in the UK.
One of the biggest reasons the grey squirrel has helped to decline the red squirrel population is that the grey squirrel can carry squirrel pox, and red squirrels are not immune to that. Grey squirrels are the bigger squirrels, more adaptable to their surroundings, and can beat out red squirrels for food and nests, and there have been calls to control the grey squirrel population where they have taken over red squirrels. Right now, the law states that squirrels cannot be caught and released elsewhere as they are classed as vermin. The legal option is - unfortunately - to shoot grey squirrels if caught!
What Do Squirrels Eat?
Squirrels draw a smile from anyone who sees these fluffy little creatures with their bushy tails - well unless they're a pest in your garden! Squirrels have a knack for stealing food from birds, and the best way to ensure that this doesn't happen is to set up a dedicated feeding area for squirrels to feed on.
Squirrels are herbivores for the most part, but there are plenty of stories out there showing that squirrels have feasted on bird eggs before! Usually, this is rare, and it only happens if other options are limited. Squirrels will adapt to the food that's available to them and eat many things - beyond the cartoon acorns you see squirrels bury for the winter. Some of their favourite foods include:
- Mushrooms and other fungi
- Grains, and more!
With the right squirrel feeder, you can add bark, twigs, soil, and dried corn to feed squirrels away from the bird feeders you may have. Squirrels will eat a range of nuts, from acorns to almonds, and they'll eat them whether they are shelled or not. In fact, squirrels can sharpen their teeth during the process of extracting the nut from a shell, so it's always better to leave the nuts in their shells if you are putting them out. The only nut you should really avoid is peanuts, as they're not great nutritionally.
Other foods that squirrels should and do avoid include flower bulbs like daffodils and hyacinths. They also don't like anything spicy, so don't add flavoured nuts to a squirrel feeder! Birds love a sprinkle of chilli on their food, though, which is an excellent way to keep squirrels off their food. Squirrels learn to forage, but red squirrels aren't as smart or as quick as the grey squirrels, which means that they often go without because grey squirrels have taken their food stash!
Where Do Squirrels Live?
Squirrels are animals that often live on their own, which means that they often nest by themselves, too. However, you'll find squirrels in pairs when mating season rolls around, as they then couple up together and do so in one nest. Whether squirrels are mating or not, they also couple up in the winter months when it's far colder, as they huddle together for warmth. Most of the time, squirrels will look for holes in trees handily created by woodpeckers, but they can build homes. The holes in trees created by other animals are the best option for squirrels, as the tree trunk's solid walls will provide safety from winter and predators.
Squirrels are excellent nest builders, and they will collect materials to make a nest near a food source. Sometimes, squirrels build more than one home in a range around their food, just in case one of their nests is destroyed by predators. There is always one main nest, and then several temporary nests to keep food hidden as a backup. It's an intelligent way to live for squirrels, as they are easy prey for bigger predators. Squirrels - unlike most other animals - do not hibernate. They have to have a solid nest or tree trunk home in the winter, and it protects them from the harsh weather. Some squirrels build a nest for the summer and then a thicker, more dense nest in the winter.
A squirrel nest is called a Drey, and they look the same, whether it's built by a flying squirrel, a grey squirrel, or a red one. Dreys are built from twigs and dry leaves, grass, and tree bark. There are three different types of squirrels nest, including:
Most people can only think of the tree dents when they think of squirrel homes, and you may have even seen some squirrels move in and out of tree dents. As we mentioned, cavities in trees are good options for squirrels, and it's these dents that will provide the best protection.
These are usually constructed at least six feet off the ground, and they are stabilised by the tree branches. Most people see nests in trees and believe that they are bird nests, but they can belong to squirrels. Squirrels have larger nests than birds, and they use both rigid and soft materials to make it as comfortable as possible. Dreys are built solidly and moulded into a sturdy home to nest in and hold food.
Believe it or not, a lot of Ground squirrels will create nests in tunnels under the ground. These are burrowed into loose soils in pastures and fields where it's quieter. They can also be found in parks and on golf courses, and nests underground are built in the tunnels, but this isn't common for grey or red squirrels. Ground squirrels aren't native to the UK, so they're rarely found here.
Below, we've put together some fun squirrel facts you may not have known. Let's take a look!
- Did you know that there are over 265 species of squirrel around the world? The very smallest squirrel is only 10cm long and is called the Pygmy Squirrel. The biggest out there is the Indian squirrel, and it sits at 3 feet long! Imagine seeing that in the park on a Sunday walk?
- Squirrels freeze when they are scared. They will then run to a nearby tree and climb until they are out of harm's way. Squirrels in the trees that are afraid will circle the tree trunk and lay flat to the bark.
- Most people can have a squirrel eating out of their hands, and they are one of the only wild animals out there that will trust humans. It's one of the nicest ways to feed squirrels in the park.
- Squirrels are very good at planning ahead for the colder months. They're very adept at collecting and hiding food under the ground, ready for the winter. They can store nuts and seeds around the area and return to them throughout the winter months - especially when food is thin on the ground.
- Squirrels don't tend to run in a straight line. In fact, they are purposely erratic in their running patterns to avoid predators.
- Grey squirrels are mostly tree-dwellers, and they build Dreys made of twigs very high in the trees. Dreys are the size of a football, and they are lined with feathers and moss for insulation. Squirrels like to be comfortable, and even if they have food stashed in their nest, they pack it so that they are comfortable.
- Squirrels are very intelligent. They will pretend to bury food to deceive other animals. Squirrels and birds steal from each other, and they'll fake bury their food to hide where they put their real food stash.
- Did you know that squirrels can communicate with one another? With scent marking and vocalisations, squirrels can "talk" to each other. They also use those cute, bushy tails as a signaling device and a way to communicate. Twitching their tails alerts other squirrels to dangers around them. While they may be in competition with each other to find food and the best nesting spots, they will still warn each other of other predators in the areas.
- There are Flying Squirrels, and there are 44 different species out there. They don't have wings like birds do, but they do have a membrane that stretches from ankle to wrist, allowing the flying squirrels to parachute and glide down from high branches to the ground.
Squirrels come in many different types, and they eat a lot of different foods. Observing squirrels local to you will teach you a lot about how squirrels live and move, and they're so interesting to watch!