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Squirrels

Introduction

The existence of wildlife in urban areas enriches our environment, bringing a little bit of nature to the bustle of the city. Abundant food and shelter and the absence of natural predators have allowed many wild animals to successfully adapt to urban life. We can hardly blame them for helping themselves to food that is readily accessible in garbage pails, gardens, composters and sheds.

If there is ample food and a place to live, removing the resident animal will just create a vacant territory for another one to move into. Preventive measures have proven to be less costly and less stressful for both wildlife and the homeowner in the long term.

Although human-wildlife conflicts can occur, a little understanding of the animals’ characteristics and needs will help us take a humane approach leading to a peaceful coexistence. Humane treatment of an animal involves compassion and respect, precludes cruelty and avoids pain, suffering or injury.

Wild animals should be treated with respect and understanding. Never corner or attempt to pick up any wild animal. They may bite when they feel threatened and they may have parasites or diseases that could be passed on to you or your pets. With a little understanding and patience, you will soon be enjoying the wild animals in your backyard!

Squirrel Characteristics

The ability of squirrels to adapt to different habitats, combined with their intelligence and curiosity, have allowed them to become proficient city dwellers. This often brings them into conflict with homeowners as the animals seek food and shelter.

Squirrels are members of the rodent family. The eastern gray squirrel is the most common tree squirrel. It is usually gray or brownish-gray with a white or lighter grey belly, or completely black. The red squirrel, also a tree squirrel, is smaller and has reddish brown fur with white underparts. Both are active during daylight hours and are primarily herbivores, feeding on roots, stems, bark, shoots, leaves, fruits, nuts, seeds, fungi, flower bulbs, and occasionally insects. Because they have rootless teeth that keep growing, they must gnaw continuously to wear them down. Otherwise they would be unable to close their mouths, and their teeth would continue to grow and eventually prevent them from feeding.

Eastern gray squirrels are about 40-50 cm long, although their bushy tails make up about half that length. They use their tails for shade from hot sun, warmth in cold weather, balance in climbing and jumping, and slowing their fall when jumping from tree to tree. When they are distressed, they will flick their tails back and forth while vocalizing to warn their neighbours.

squirrel
Photo: Justin Ellis

Their slender toes with sharp claws make them excellent climbers. Squirrels keep themselves busy collecting and hoarding seeds and other food. Red squirrels will store food where they live, whereas grays will store it elsewhere. They often store more than they need and sometimes forget where they stashed it. This contributes to reforestation by scattering seeds that will take root and grow in a new location.

Gray or red squirrels generally build their nests high up in trees, in hollow trunks or forks between thick branches, using moss, twigs, and dry leaves. Sometimes squirrels will live in colonies with several nests shared amongst them. Although they do not hibernate, they will spend long hours in their nests during winter. Red squirrels will stay in their nests for days since they have food stored, whereas grays will go out of their nests every day.

Red squirrels can enter a building at ground level and work their way up to the attic where they will build their nests out of leaves, grass and shredded bark from outside. A sure sign of reds in the attic is large stores of pine cones, nuts and fungi. Entrance holes are usually very hard to find as they can be as small as a golf ball.

Gray squirrels mate in January or February and again around July; reds mate in February or March and again in July or August. The gestation period is 38-44 days. One to seven hairless and blind pups are born in a litter. They do not venture out of the nest until seven to eight weeks and are not weaned until 10 to 12 weeks. Their average life span is five to eight years.

Prevention

Chimneys

Squirrels may fall down chimneys but are unable to climb out. If the damper is closed they will be trapped and will die if not removed. You will hear persistent jumping and scratching noises in the daytime. Do not try to pick the squirrel up and remove it.

Never try to smoke a squirrel or any other animal out of the chimney. It is very inhumane as the animals will die a slow death because they cannot climb out on their own to escape. See the section on Problem Solving for suggestions on passive removal methods.

Roof and Vents

To prevent entry into the roof, vents should be screened and loose or rotting wood should be replaced. Bathroom, stove and dryer vents should also be covered with screen. Prune overhanging trees, shrubs and vines back to twelve feet to prevent access to the roof or into the attic, although squirrels can climb brick walls. Regular inspections should be done to prevent potential access points from opening up. Eavestroughs should be cleaned regularly and broken or missing roof shingles should be replaced. Paint or cover exposed wood to prevent rotting and close up any existing openings that opportunistic squirrels may use.

Bird Feeders

To prevent squirrels chewing your bird feeder and eating the food, install a free-standing feeder on a metal pole at least two metres high, away from overhanging trees and shrubs. Attach a metal cone to the pole to prevent squirrels climbing up. It is difficult to squirrel-proof hanging bird feeders because squirrels can climb down the line, even with a cone, or jump from a nearby tree. You may consider having a squirrel feeder as well as a bird feeder, thereby avoiding the conflict. If you start feeding during the winter, you should continue feeding because animals will depend on you for food.

Gardens

To protect fruit trees or other young trees from being chewed by squirrels or other rodents, trim low branches and wrap sheet metal around the trunk up to one and a half metres off the ground to account for depth of snow. Squirrels rarely do significant damage to seedlings so don’t be too quick to blame them. They may, however, strip bark from trees to access the sweet sap underneath. The trees most vulnerable to this are sycamore, beech and oak.

To save flowering bulbs from being devoured, place one and a half cm (or smaller) wire mesh over the bulb bed. Extend the mesh at least 15 cm beyond the planted area and secure it. This will keep away raccoons and also chipmunks and mice if the mesh is small enough. Remove the mesh when the ground begins to thaw to prevent shoots from becoming deformed as they try to grow through it; most animals will be seeking new shoots, insects and worms at that time so will leave the bulbs alone.

Problem Solving

It is very important to consider the time of year before beginning any squirrel removal efforts. Babies are born and raised between March and May and again between August and October. Do not attempt active removal between March and September. Passive methods may be attempted when babies are fully mobile and have been seen coming outside and foraging for food. Battery-operated bright lights and a battery- operated radio playing loudly may encourage squirrels to move out. (Do not use electrical radios or lights as animals may chew the wires.) For a period of a week to ten days after birth, the mother will remain very close to the entry hole and will dart back in if threatened.

Because squirrels are daytime animals, begin early on a sunny day. If there are squirrels in the roof, start by inspecting the entire roof looking for possible entrance holes and other problem areas. Check the outside of the eaves and any vents. Also check the fascia board at the corners of the house as this is the most common entry area. Wait until you are sure all the squirrels are gone as they usually do during the day when they are mature and mobile.

When you are fairly certain that all the animals have left, including any babies, seal up all potential entrance holes with half-inch galvanized steel screen, extending it well beyond the hole to prevent squirrels gnawing around the patch. Don’t use chicken wire as it can stretch and an animal can get caught in it. Place a bit of peanut butter just inside each hole before sealing it up. You must be home for the next few days to monitor for noises of an animal locked in and to check the food tests. If you hear an animal inside, go and open an entrance hole and wait for the animal to run out. When the animal has gone, seal it up again temporarily, replace the food test and listen and check the food test for a few days. If you don’t hear any noises and the food test is untouched for at least three days, you can permanently seal up all the holes.

If a removal has been attempted and an adult is seen pacing around the house or roof, vocalizing and chewing, she is likely indicating that her babies have been locked in. Squirrels are excellent mothers and will vocalize, flip their tail and even charge at intruders to protect their young. Open the entrance hole immediately to let the mother in and wait until the babies have been seen coming outside before attempting removal again.

To remove a squirrel trapped in the chimney lower a thick, rough rope from the top of the chimney so that it can climb out. If this does not work, close doors to the rest of the house, open some windows and doors to outside, and open the damper and fireplace doors, to allow it to escape. Leave the room and keep quiet to reduce the stress and threat of humans present.

Monitor with a peanut butter test at the fireplace and at the rooftop to ensure no animals are still trapped inside the chimney. Once the animals have gone, cap the chimney properly with screen that will allow the flow of smoke and gases but will prevent animals from falling down.

Live Trapping

Although live trapping has been widely used as a method of wildlife control, it is not a long-term solution. It can be inhumane as the animals may suffer severe injury and sometimes death in their attempts to escape. Most wild animals are territorial, so relocating them somewhere else will not only fail to solve local problems, but often creates new problems at the release site by upsetting the natural balance of existing populations. Animals relocated often do not survive. Relocation also facilitates the spread of disease from one area to another.

In addition to the target animal, a baited trap may attract other animals including domestic animals to the area. Trapping causes stress to the animals and often separates mothers from babies resulting in the agonizing death of dependent offspring. Even when an entire family is captured and relocated, the mother may abandon her young at the new site due to pressure to find food and care for her young.

Instead of removing them with traps, animals should be encouraged to leave on their own using the methods described in this factsheet. By using these passive methods the disturbance to the animals is minimized and unnecessary stress and suffering is avoided.

Wildlife Rehabilitation Centres

Wildlife rehabilitation centres provide care for injured and orphaned wildlife until the animals can be released back to the wild. They may also offer advice on addressing human-wildlife conflicts. These centres are generally non-profit or charitable organizations dedicated to helping wild animals in need.

Ask the local humane society or SPCA to recommend a wildlife rehabilitation centre in your area. Some provinces require wildlife rehabilitation centres to obtain permits, but in most cases they are unregulated, so care should be taken to ensure their credibility.

Commercial Wildlife Removal Companies

The Canadian Federation of Humane Societies urges you to employ the methods described in this factsheet to help solve conflicts with wildlife. If, however, you have thoroughly pursued the options with patience but have failed and you feel you need to enlist the services of a commercial wildlife removal company, do some research first. Most companies advertise the humane removal of wildlife, but the wildlife removal industry in Canada is largely unregulated, so you should ask for previous work references and check with the local humane society and the Better Business Bureau regarding their credibility. Ask specific questions about the methods of removal to ensure the animals will be treated humanely. Make sure you have a firm agreement with the company about the methods used to remove the animals and a guarantee on their work. You should pay only when you are satisfied with the work, not before.

Do not use companies that plan to trap and relocate the animals, as significant suffering can result if animals are relocated to another environment or if traps are left unattended. Also avoid companies that use poisons, gases or chemicals. Instead seek companies that have experience and are committed to removing the animals humanely and simply letting them go on site. Ensure the company’s employees are professional and knowledgeable about the animals’ habits and behaviours.

Seek companies that offer repair work (or can recommend someone) as well as preventive maintenance as part of their service. This will keep your costs down and help prevent future conflicts with wildlife. Also look for a guarantee on the entire serviced area, rather than just the entry hole.

In Conclusion

Prevention of squirrel problems through good property maintenance and management is the only permanent solution. The removal of individual animals, without taking steps to eliminate access to denning sites and food sources, will just leave a vacant territory for other squirrels to inhabit. Squirrels and other animals in our cities can be entertaining to watch and give us a glimpse of nature at our doorstep. Please be respectful and patient with these animals when conflicts arise. Do not disturb them when they have young, and employ only the passive methods described in this factsheet to address problems.

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