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SQUIRRELS

Écureuil

Description

Grey squirrels can be seen in cities and suburbs as well as in deciduous and mixed forests (conifers and hardwoods). Their coat is brownish or tinted grey, especially at the beginning of winter. As with similar species, their underbelly is whiter in colour, but some “grey squirrels” are completely white or beige, and black ones are common, especially in the northern part of their range. Red squirrels are smaller, have a longer tail, and their brown coat takes on red highlights in winter and olive ones in summer. A black line separates their dark winter coat from their underbelly area. Red squirrels can be found in the same areas as grey squirrels but they are more often associated with coniferous (or mixed) forests, and can also live around buildings. Red squirrels are distinguishable from flying squirrels (eastern flying squirrels and northern flying squirrels) since the latter have furry membranes extending from both sides of their body, connecting their hind legs to their front legs, enabling them to glide. Their tail is also flatter, and they sometimes live in attics and buildings.

Behaviour

Grey squirrels climb trees for protection as well as to find food and shelter. They look for buds (in late winter and spring), acorns, nuts, achenes (fruit of the beech tree), maple and elm key fruits, the cambium of trees (the part of the trunk beneath the bark), small fruits and insects, eggs and nestlings. In summer, they build spherical shelters made of tree leaves and twigs that they assemble up in the branches. They may also use woodpecker holes in trees or chew out the insertion point of a rotted branch to form a cavity in which to nest. They bury the fruit they keep in reserve for winter separately (acorns, for example) and are able to find it again thanks to their keen sense of smell. Grey squirrels remain active in winter and can shelter in a cavity inside a tree. Unlike nocturnal flying squirrels, they are active during the day, but only in the coolest hours in summer and in the warmest hours in winter. The females raise their babies alone and can have one or two litters between March and August, each with an average of three pups. The babies are hairless at birth and their eyes are closed. When the females leave the nest, they cover the babies with nesting material.

Places where they can be found in the home

Squirrels are primarily attracted by woods and trees, but they can chew their way through a shingle or wood roof to get into an attic where they sometimes make their nests. They can also enter a house through a chimney or fireplace. The damage they cause can be significant because they chew on electrical wires and can get into hard to reach places. They will also chew up mattresses and blankets if they happen to find their way into a chalet. You can usually see them, or hear the noise they make, and you will sometimes notice their oval-shaped excrement (about 1 cm long), the holes they gnaw, or their food provisions or remains.

In cities and suburbs, grey squirrels eat plant bulbs, seeds and buds as well as ripe vegetables and corn kernels. They also damage lawns when burying their food reserves.

Squirrels generally contribute to reforestation of the natural environment because they forget about some of the seeds they bury, but they hinder tree growth when they eat the buds and bark. They will also attack the tubing that carries maple sap to the sugar shack, and will eat trapped rabbits. Red squirrels and flying squirrels can transmit diseases to humans, but they are not considered significant vectors. Nevertheless, if they live in our attics they can bring us into contact with fleas, ticks and other parasitic mites.

Prevention methods

The best way to prevent squirrels from getting indoors is to plug up openings, replace broken windows and inspect other structures that could provide access to a building. Such entry points are often high up where they go unnoticed. But be sure not to plug up the animal’s only way out if it is already inside.

An electric fence can prevent them from getting into a garden, but it is very hard to control the damage caused by squirrels that attack a garden.

It is best to install funnel-shaped plastic collars around posts that support bird feeders or bird houses so that squirrels cannot get at the seeds or nestlings. Squirrels are capable of chewing wood to enlarge bird house entrance holes.

When there are no branches or fences providing other possibilities to squirrels – some authors suggest cutting the branches that enable them to climb onto the roof – you can prevent them from climbing on a tree by installing a well-fitting metal ban around the trunk, held in place by clips so as not to injure the tree during it’s growth (using spring clips, for example). The band should be placed two meters above the ground since it would be easy for a squirrel to jump that high. Some authors recommend installing split plastic tubes on wires so that the tubes will pivot when the animal walks on them and fall off. But when it comes to electric wires, it is important to call the responsible authorities before trying to protect them since if there is a risk of electrocution, it is better to tolerate the squirrels. American authors say that, in some years, squirrels have caused almost one-fourth of all power outages – nearly 100, and even as many as 300 !

Although we often come across squirrels in our daily lives, it is best not to extend your hand to one since they bite and can become aggressive, especially if you try to catch one.

Control methods

If you have any openings through which squirrels could enter, you can install a small one-way door that opens outwards only, or a 10 cm diameter plastic pipe set at a 45 degree angle.

You can also capture the animal using a live-capture trap. Peanuts (or peanut butter), nuts, sunflower seeds, corn, grapes, and orange or apple slices would be useful as bait. It is best to let the animal get used to the bait before activating the trap. You should also be aware that some localities require you to obtain a capture permit.

Sticky traps have been used to combat squirrels (for the smaller species) as have rat control anticoagulants (that cause hemorrhages), naphthalene balls (moth balls), sticky products that prevent the squirrels from climbing, bad-tasting repellents that are applied to tubing, fences, bulbs, seeds or flowers, and rat traps. Always check local regulations before choosing a control method, since squirrels are considered hunting animals in some states in the U.S. and may be a protected species in others. Lastly, always read the label carefully before using a rodent control product.

Additional information

Squirrels use their tails for balance when jumping from one branch to another. The first part of its Latin name – Sciurus – means “animal sitting in the shade of its tail”. The incisors of squirrels and other rodents grow more slowly on the outer, enamel-covered face. If these teeth cannot wear down, due to malformation, they continue to grow forming a spiral that will eventually prevent the animal from feeding and can even perforate its jaw or skull.

Grey squirrels sometimes take ant baths because the acid ants secrete helps the squirrels get rid of their parasites. Red squirrels can eat mushrooms that would be deadly to humans. About half of the individuals in a given population die each year.

In the early 1900’s, there was a fear that grey squirrels would become extinct in some states in the U.S. because the land was being cleared for farming. With the declining preference for the rural way of life, the trees grew back and, today, it is hard to believe that people once worried about the squirrel’s future.

Popular beliefs

Although it can be a kind of animal therapy for some, it is not good for humans to feed animals.

Even though most people can recognize squirrels, they sometimes refer to them as “trash can rats” because of their invasive behaviour when inspecting the waste in trash cans. Rats and squirrels are both members of the mammalian category and the rodentia rank, but the former belong to the family of muridae, as does the common mouse, while squirrels, flying squirrels and eastern chipmunks are part of the same family as the groundhog – the sciuridae.


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