Wetland Explorer: Squirrels offer winter entertainment

By Pam Martin
Kansas Department Wildlife, Parks and Tourism educator

People who feed birds often curse them, but for viewing fun, you can’t beat a fox squirrel. With tree branches stripped of leaves, these furry aerialists’ antics are easily viewed from the comfort of your home during the winter season.

fox squirrel at feeder
A fox squirrel strikes a familiar pose at one of its favorite food sources, a bird feeder. Although considered a pest by many who feed birds, the fox squirrel is itself an entertainer, providing many hours of high-wire acrobatics and antics.

While the other two Cheyenne Bottoms squirrel species, prairie dogs and thirteen-lined ground squirrels, remain underground during cold winter weather, the fox squirrel stays active, even hunting for food during snow storms. Using its long, bushy tail as an umbrella over its back, it will venture out to search the ground for acorns and seeds hidden during the fall. The fox squirrel has a keen sense of smell used to locate nuts and seeds buried under leaves and a little soil. Those nuts the squirrel misses often germinate, making the fox squirrel an important assistant in the dispersal and growth of new trees.

Recent research suggests fox squirrels are using more than their noses to find their cached food. They appear to remember their own caches better than those buried by other squirrels. And remember the scene in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” when the squirrels are checking for bad nuts? Well, evidence is mounting that fox squirrels shake their heads to gauge the nut’s quality if they are getting ready to store, rather than eat the nut.

A fox squirrel’s restaurant of choice is often a bird feeder, especially one containing sunflower seeds or peanuts. With the ability to jump four to six feet straight up and 10 feet or more from tree branch to tree branch, fox squirrels are athletic enough to access nearly any feeder. An inquisitive nature and a talent for solving problems usually gain the squirrel entry to feeders.

Fox squirrels in our backyard hang upside down from the maple tree branch, trying to get around the plastic baffle placed above the bird perches and feeder openings. This gets precarious during snowy, icy weather. Many a time they slip, plunging down into the snow only to shake themselves off and give it another go.

One year we put ears of corn out to distract them from the bird feeder. Eager to store this bonanza, they hauled whole ears up over the neighbor’s garage roof, disappearing over the roof peek. A year later, we discovered what had happened to all those ears of corn. The owners moved back in after a three-year absence and discovered an attic full of corn. The house had literally become a squirrel hotel.

Making a kind of low-pitched barking call, chattering teeth and twitching its tail when disturbed, fox squirrels scold cats, dogs and people who enter their city territories. In Cheyenne Bottoms, they are in danger of becoming meals for owls, red-tailed hawks, foxes, coyotes and bobcats.

Female fox squirrels may produce two litters of young per year, usually three per litter. The young are born totally dependent, with no hair and closed ears and eyes. By two months, they are exploring out of the nest and climbing and at three months are independent. In addition to nuts and seeds, fox squirrels eat fruit, buds, insects and even bird eggs.

Fox squirrels prefer living in a tree cavity but also make leaf nests, called dreys. The large nests can easily be seen in winter and are made by nipping off small branches and weaving them together around a sturdy branch.

Try adding squirrel watching to your list of things to do this winter and I bet you’ll catch yourself laughing out loud at their antics.

Good luck!

Tips for excluding squirrels from bird feeders

  • Add a “baffle” to tube feeders. Usually metal or plastic dome- or saucer-shaped disks, the baffle should be placed above and/or just below the feeder. Mount loosely, so they tip when a squirrel lands on them. If the feeder is on a pole, make sure the pole is made of a smooth material.
  • Hanging feeders should be suspended from a horizontal wire that is suspended between two points. There should be nothing above the feeder that the squirrel can use as a launching pad. To avoid squirrel’s high wire walking abilities, place the feeder in the middle of the wire and thread each end of the wire through five-foot long, four-inch diameter sections of PVC pipe. The pipe rotates when the squirrel tries to walk on it.
  • The most successful squirrel-proof feeder is an all-metal feeder with adjustable springs that regulate a counter-weight door, allowing the weight of a bird but not a squirrel entry to the food.
  • Make a separate squirrel feeder.  If there is an easier place to find food they’ll make less effort towards the bird feeder.  Suet, corn cob, sunflower seeds or peanuts are popular.

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