10/10/2012 09:17

Gray squirrels scampering in the leaves, burying nuts in secret places, and conniving to get at the sunflower seeds in our “squirrel-proof” bird-feeders are just more signs that fall is here and winter is not far behind.

            “Many people believe that a squirrel’s diet consists mostly of sunflower seeds. But sunflower seeds do not provide a complete diet for squirrels,” writes George H. Harrison on the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Website, “The seeds lack at least one enzyme that is essential to the health of the animals, and if the creatures eat too many, they will lose their hair. That’s why squirrels eat a variety of other foods on a daily basis, including fungi, buds, flowers, and even insects.”

            Without finding and storing enough food, these backyard entertainers cannot live through our Midwest winter. Gray squirrels can bury thousands of nuts in a relatively short amount of time. Although squirrels are merely keeping the food away from competitors, they are also playing the role of gardener and planting them. Harrison explains that “not only are squirrels responsible for planting most of the oaks, hickories, walnuts, beeches and maples that dominate our many woodlands, but the spores from the fungi the rodents eat land in the soil and provide vital nutrients for tree growth.”

            “How many squirrels remember where they buried their nuts and seeds? … Scientists estimate that as many as 95 percent of the caches may be retrieved by squirrels, either from memory or by smelling the food through as much as a foot of snow. The remaining five percent are left to germinate to help future forests,” reports Harrison.

            When we plant bulbs in the fall, young squirrels find the newly dug ground an easy place to dig. When a bulb is uncovered they either eat it or carry it to another place to bury it for later. NWF suggests covering the ground where bulbs have recently been planted with plastic coated wire fencing held down with wire staples and covered with mulch. The bulbs can grow up through them without problems.

            Some tips for keeping squirrels out of bird feeders is also shared by NWF. Suggestions include: attaching a slinky to the top of the pole and let the rest of it hang; placing a clear plastic dome directly above a hanging bird-feeder; mounting the feeder on a length of PVC pipe so squirrels will slide off; hanging a feeder surrounded by wire screen that allows only small birds to enter; or switching from sunflower seeds to safflower seeds which don’t appeal to squirrels.

            Keep in mind that squirrels are important to the forest ecosystem and to the diversity of our backyards. Imagine our yards without them. Adapt and enjoy.


(rewritten from 10/17/06)

Della Moen, Earth Team Volunteer, NRCS/Stephenson Soil and Water Conservation District, an equal opportunity provider and employer, 10/10/12 (for publication on 10/13/12 in the Journal Standard, Freeport, Illinois) Della can be reached at