The Gray Squirrel 411
Know your enemy! The gray squirrel can be a gardener's worst furry foe, unless you take precautions.
The Eastern gray squirrel, found in the Eastern and Midwestern United States, is a tree-dwelling rodent found in forested areas, but also frequently found in populated urban and suburban locations, where predators are less common. Fifteen to 20 inches long with a bushy tail and gray to brown coloring and a white underside, gray squirrels can be seen year-round, moving easily and acrobatically from tree to tree or along fences, power lines or gutters.
Gray squirrels build their nests of dry twigs and leaves, called “dreys,” balled together in large clumps in the crotches of tree branches. Breeding twice a year, once in late winter and again in the early summer months, squirrels will share these nests during breeding season and throughout the winter for purposes of warmth. Adaptive to environment, they may also seek out access to man-made structures, nesting in the attics of homes when the opportunity arises.
Primarily feeding on nuts, seeds, berries and acorns, squirrels bury their surpluses to be retrieved at a later time. Although good at planning for times when food supplies are scarce, squirrels are also opportunists and will eat what is available, including bird eggs, frogs or even smaller rodents. The instinct to scavenge is what makes these squirrels true pests.
Raiding bird feeders, digging up flower beds and destroying garden crops, they consume aggressively. In home gardens, they may be drawn to corn or leafy crops, but will sample indiscriminately. Tomatoes, squash or other vegetable plants may be partially consumed, fruits destroyed and discarded or entire plants uprooted. Fences are often ineffective in deterring these climbing pests, and establishing passive control of a destructive squirrel population is difficult.
Providing squirrels with an appealing alternative to garden crops can solve a squirrel problem without resorting to extreme measures. Squirrel feeders are readily available. Filled with sunflower seeds or other squirrel-friendly food and placed at a distance from an affected vegetable garden or flower bed, such feeders may leave a scavenging squirrel less interested in formerly desirable plants. If employing a feeder, other squirrels may be drawn to the property, making it important to maintain this alternate food source.
Tastes and scents may also be used to discourage squirrels from eating or damaging vegetable plants or flower beds. Hot peppers or garlic planted in a garden bed may send squirrels in search of a less distasteful food source. Sprays using these strong scents or animal urine around planting beds are also effective, but will need to be applied repeatedly as they are washed away by rain.
Outdoor cats and dogs are a reliable predator to invading squirrels. If considering enlisting a pet to control garden pests, keep in mind that domestic pets are often considered garden pests in their own right, digging in soil or damaging young plants.
Motion detecting sprinklers or lights will startle approaching squirrels, but can be expensive and must be sensitive enough to detect the motion of these rodents, making them likely to be triggered inadvertently and frequently.
Trapping or shooting squirrels are not uncommon tactics in controlling a destructive presence, but when other techniques are employed, it is possible to put an end to problems without putting an end to the squirrels.