How to Keep Squirrels from Driving You Nuts
The most common mammals in the world, both in numbers and in species, are the rodents. Rodents make up approximately 1,700 species in 35 families. They fall into the classification Order Rodentia which comes from the Latin word rodere. It comes as no surprise that rodere literally means “to gnaw.” All rodents have a pair of prominent, constantly growing incisors.
Rodents are fascinating in their ability to adapt to a wide variety of habitats and climates. They can be found on all continents (although can survive only with man on the poles). They also have an extremely effective body structure and a high reproductive potential. Ranging in size from a few grams for a pygmy mouse to 50 kg (110 lbs) for a capybara, rodents take all forms.
In East Tennessee, we are “blessed” with a wide variety of rodents. These include (but are not limited to) the house mouse, Norway rat, chipmunk, vole, gray squirrel, flying squirrel, groundhog, and beaver. Many other species of rodents live here but are not as prominent. They live underground, at ground level, in waterways, and in trees. In their natural habitat rodents are normally fine. They serve as an important niche in the ecosystems. Occasionally rodents venture inside to make their homes and have families. In the spring and fall of the year we see a large rise in rodent calls.
One of the most prolific of the East Tennessee rodents is the gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). These creatures are fun to watch in their natural environment. They are quite acrobatic and can easily jump 15-20 feet when running from tree to tree. I have seen more than one squirrel miss a branch and fall somewhere around 40 feet to the ground. After a couple of bounces and a moment to clear its head, they were able to scamper right back up the tree with no apparent ill effects. Many times they can be seen running along a high voltage or telephone wire. Long nails make it possible for them to climb all forms of bark, sprint across a yard, or to climb a brick or stucco sided building. Gray squirrels fall into the Sciuridae family with the rest of the tree squirrels. They are normally gray sided and backed with a light gray or white underside. Their body size can reach about 18 inches and up to 1 ½ pounds. Gray squirrels have a bushy tail which can be used as a balancing tool, a parachute, an umbrella, or a communication tool.
The diet of a gray squirrel is normally limited to seeds and nuts, although they will occasionally eat human food, insects, fruit, and bird eggs or nestlings. They can be seen digging up or burying nuts in yards much of the year. Gray squirrels can also be a persistent nuisance to a dedicated bird watcher and feeder.
Most calls that we get for gray squirrels come from one or more squirrels that have found shelter in a building. Squirrels are curious and will inspect roof tops, soffits, and trim in search of a weak spot or gap. Once that has been identified they will quickly make entrance through the toughest materials. They are capable of chewing through all wood, plastics, vinyl, and sheet metal. Once inside a building, gray squirrels usually limit their activity to the attic and will build nests, store food, and chew on different materials. This tasting might be a pine 2×4 roof truss or it may be the insulation on wiring. Because of this, they are responsible for dozens of house fires across the US each year. They also sometimes get into trouble near electrical transformers and power lines.
Gray squirrels normally have two litters of young each year. In the early spring and late summer the females begin to look for a safe place to build a nest. After finding a suitable place, she will have 2-4 babies and nurture them until they can begin to look for food on their own.
Many buildings are unknowingly set up for gray squirrel families. Those buildings that have tall trees overhanging them are much more likely to be used as squirrel homes. Homes or businesses that are in a wooded area with a lot of squirrel activity should be inspected regularly. Soft or loose siding should be replaced before a hole is created. Gutters should be cleaned regularly to keep fascia boards and trim from rotting.
Some of the signs that would indicate a squirrel occupancy are:
- a 1 ½ – 2 inch round hole around a soffit, trim, or eave
- trails through your attic insulation that are packed down
- chewed wires or cables
- squirrel feces (3/4 inch black oblong pellets that are blunt on both ends)
- pieces of nuts
- scratching sounds in the attic, especially around morning and evening
If squirrels have gained access, it is important to remove them quickly, relocate them several miles away, and seal the hole. Another step to consider is to spray all areas where they’ve been active to eliminate pheromone that they may have left. Like many other mammals, squirrels will leave scent markers to attract other squirrels to the site.
Keep gray squirrels on the outside of your house and all involved will be much happier.