Squirrels are tenacious rodent pests, and it’s reasonable for gardeners to expect control rather than eradication from their efforts.
It’s one thing to battle with a squirrel who insists on hogging the garden birdfeeder. It’s another matter when squirrels, not the gardener, enjoy summer’s first tomato from the vegetable patch.
Like them or loathe them, squirrels are here to stay. Ancient squirrel fossils have been aged as far back as twenty-four million years.
With their scurrying, gathering, and general busyness, squirrels are some of the top entertainers in the animal kingdom. They are social creatures that chase and tease one another in actual play. Some squirrel species, like the Grey Squirrel, have a forgetful nature and consequently replenish forests with their forgotten nut (seed) caches.
On the flip side, as far as human interest is concerned, squirrels can be detrimental. They can do considerable damage to crops, pastureland, and tree roots. Whatever an individual’s feelings are about them, squirrels are an important link in the food chain. They make up part of the diet for bobcats, foxes, weasels, coyotes, snakes and birds of prey.
- Order: Rodentia
- Family: Sciuridae
- Diet: They are Omnivores – Squirrels are opportunistic eaters, that is, they are not strictly herbivore or carnivores.
- Height: Ranges from 5” – 36”
- Weight: Ranges from 0.5 oz. – 4 lbs.
- Offspring: They give birth to 2-8 babies which are born blind and naked. They stay with mom until 2-3 months old.
- Lifespan: The average is about 6 years, however, if the animal lives near traffic, it’s closer to 1 year.
- Group name: Because squirrels live a solitary life, and don’t live in groups, no formal group name has been given. However, some people loosely call a group of squirrels a dray or scurry.
With over two-hundred species world-wide, the statistics on squirrels clearly depends upon their individual type. They are diurnal (active in the day), the only exception being the Flying Squirrel, which is nocturnal (active only at night).
Ground Squirrels, unlike bears, who actually just sleep for months at a time, go into ‘true’ hibernation. Their heart rate slows down to a mere one-tenth of the normal rate and they only take a breath every couple of minutes.
They do wake up every 4 or 5 days to get a bite from the cache and use the bathroom. Squirrels range in size from the tiny African Pygmy of West Africa (5’) to the bulky Indian Giant of South Asia (3 Feet).
- Other insects
- Baby birds
Three Types of Squirrels:
- Tree Squirrels – They are probably the ones most familiar to everybody. They are unrivaled in climbing and jumping. They are found in cities and woods all over the world.
- Ground Squirrels- These speedy guys live in tunnel systems underground. During hibernation, they even have a special ‘bathroom’ chamber they use every few days.
- Flying Squirrels – Hands down the most fascinating of the three types. While they don’t truly ’fly’, they can glide 150 feet from tree to tree. Most go completely unnoticed by humans. They have a loose fold of skin connected from the back legs to the front arms that they extend to ‘fly’. Flying Squirrels live in tree holes or nests like birds. Although they do eat the same foods as other squirrels, their main food is the lichen on the trees. Flying Squirrels are a critically endangered species due to deforestation for land development, and agriculture. This species, in particular, only has one to two young which furthers the problem.
It may not come as a surprise that squirrels are on the top ten list of the smartest animals. Intelligence may be subjective, but squirrels are masters at the art of deceit and learn quickly. While squirrels can be a problem for people, if we can strike a balance, and learn to live with them, perhaps we can find the time to enjoy their clownish antics and darling faces.
Get rid of Squirrels
Organic squirrel repellants work because of the finely tuned sense of smell squirrels possess.
Odors offensive or frightening to squirrels are undetectable to birds, and when gardeners apply the products according to package instructions, the odor should be minimal.
Gardeners must reapply odor-based repellants after heavy rains.
Gardeners can buy powder or liquid organic squirrel repellants made with hot pepper to deter squirrels from feeding on vegetable gardens or from dominating bird feeders.
Take care when applying these products, as they can cause severe eye irritation. Gardeners must wear gloves and eye protection, and wash hands after handling hot pepper squirrel repellants.
Another popular squirrel repellant contains liquid or powdered urine concentrate of predators, usually fox or coyote urine. When the squirrels smell the markings of their enemies on your property, their instincts warn them that this is the territory of the enemy.
Traps are inexpensive, humane, and gardeners can use traps repeatedly. However, gardeners may attract other animals to a trap intended for squirrels, including possums or skunks.
Over time, many gardeners will, at one time or another, face a squirrel opponent that is unusually wily and resistant to all other methods of deterrent. A trap is useful in this instance to remove that one ornery squirrel that vexes the gardener from one season to the next.
Protect Bulbs from Squirrels
Gardeners can treat bulbs with some of the aforementioned squirrel repellants before planting. Remove all traces of the papery husks that encase the bulbs after planting, as these can prompt the squirrel to dig for buried treasure.
Dealing With Squirrels in Texas Landscapes
When cold weather approaches, squirrels look for a warm place to hide and that could include an attic. Gardeners can do a few preventive things to keep squirrels a bay.
Texas has two kinds of squirrel groups to contend with. Ground squirrels are found in south and west Texas and tree squirrels in east and central Texas.
Cute as squirrels may be to watch as they cavort about, squirrels can damage landscapes and homes. There are several ways to try to control squirrels, but they are cagey little devils and a gardener may need to try several methods at the same time.
Texas Wildlife Damage Management Service— a cooperative program between the Texas Agricultural Extension Service and United States Department of Agriculture—offers two articles: one on tree squirrels and one on ground squirrels that describe their physical characteristics, their habitat and behavior.
What Damage Can Squirrels do to Texas Landscapes and Homes
Squirrels have been reported to dig garden plants and chew the bark from trees. Ground squirrels can damage plants and fruit trees by chewing bark and sometimes even girding the tree which can cause the tree’s death. Ground squirrels eat garden vegetables and have been reported to chew plastic sprinkler heads.
The burrows of ground squirrels can be destructive making it difficult to mow and presenting hazards to people or animals crossing the yard.
Tree squirrels eat nuts, fruits, berries, bird seed from a bird-feeder and vegetables in home gardens. However tree squirrels save their worst damage for inside the home. A squirrel in the attic can chew wires, stored items, and leave an unpleasant trail of their presence. Squirrels have been known to cause power outages and fires because of their chewing habits.
Finally, squirrels are associated with some diseases that can be communicated to humans and pets. A major concern, because of its consequences, is plague that can be transmitted to humans by fleas carried on the squirrels.
According to the Texas Department of Health, Zoonosis Control Division (no date available), “Plague is a disease caused by bacteria (Yersinia pestis). It occurs naturally in parts of western Texas. It primarily affects rodents (such as rats, squirrels, and prairie dogs), but it can affect cats and people.”
Squirrels can also carry rabies.
Controlling Squirrels in a Landscape
The Texas gardener has several options to control squirrels in the landscape including:
- Trapping, with a Hav-a-Heart trap baited with goodies like peanut butter, crackers, fruits or cookies
- Excluding, using 2ft high collars around trees, netting over fruit trees, and row covers over garden vegetables. Be sure to seal any possible entrance to the attic.
- Repelling, using naphthalane (moth balls).
- Harming the squirrel.
In urban areas, the animal control or animal care officer available through the city may help with trapping and removing squirrels from property. Exterminating services are available throughout the State with professionals skilled at dealing with squirrel infestations.
A word of caution: squirrels are smart and clever so many control techniques may fail or need to be tried together to get control.
So, enjoy the squirrels in the landscape, but do so smartly. If squirrels are trying to enter the house, deal with that problem quickly and professionally.
Protect Your Birdfeeders and Flower Bulbs from Hungry Squirrels
Feeding birds and planting bulbs also rings the dinner bell for some uninvited guests.
They are furry, curious, and as entertaining as little clowns. But, let’s be honest. For the gardener, and bird enthusiast, squirrels can be a serious nuisance. Keeping squirrels from raiding bird feeders and destroying garden beds can be challenging. Below are some tips to take on that challenge – and win.
Keep Squirrels off Your Feeders
- Buy bird feeders that have a ‘baffle’. This is a metal or plastic cone that fits either above or below the feeder that keeps the critters beyond arm’s length. Make sure the baffle is loose so the squirrel is dislodged if he decided to jump for it.
- Buy special feeders designed to close the seed doorways when anything heavier than a bird sits on the perches.
- Remember to place feeders far away from overhanging tree branches that makes it east for squirrels. Try using shepherd’s hooks.
- Mix hot pepper in with the bird seed. Capsaicin, (the component in peppers that makes our mouth’s burn), is too hot for mammals to tolerate, but is completely tasteless to birds.
- Try switching bird seed. Squirrels love sunflowers, but ignore safflower.
- If you can’t beat them – feed them! Giving squirrels their own feeding station very often works. Set out the much-loved sunflower seed and dried corn cobs on special cob holders.
Banish Squirrels from Bulb Beds
- Try sprinkling hot pepper on the bulb plantings.
- Using a hand grater, grate soft onion on top of the bulbs.
- Some people claim to have luck with baby powder dusted around the bulbs. Squirrels don’t like the texture nor the smell.
- Plant bulbs under a ‘tough’ groundcover, such as Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum), Creeping Phlox (Phlox subulata) or Stonecrop (Sedum). Squirrels find it annoying, but bulbs will pop through without any problem.
- Introduce your dog. Encourage your dog to ‘mark his territory’ around the out side of a fenced garden.
- Make a “Wire Bed”. Cut a long piece of chicken wire and lay it in the trench before you plant the bulbs. Space the bulbs normally along the wire. Take both ends and fold over forming a tube over the bulbs. Cover with soil as usual.
If the squirrel population is overwhelming, humane (live) traps can be rented to remove the offensive neighbors. Once caged, the rodents can be released at least a mile away from the property to keep them from returning.
Wildlife rescue organizations and wildlife biologists request that any wildlife trapped be released in the same county it was trapped in. While not fool-proof, there is strong evidence that this practice has helped control disease as well as kept control of non-native species on some level.
With a little effort, harmony can be achieved between the squirrels and your little corner of the world.