Gray Squirrels – Are they in your attic?
It’s about that time. If gray squirrels are going to gnaw and claw their way into your home this (April) is the time of year it’s most likely to happen. I remember my father carrying the ladder from our garage to any of the peaks in the house, climbing to the second story, and working on a new hole the gray squirrels made. The nested in our attic back then the way the red squirrels like to nest in my attic now. I grew up at the edge of a mixed old-growth woods in a small town just across the Bangor city line. It was the perfect place for gray squirrels. Mum inadvertently fed them by feeding the birds.
Why the attic? The first mating season for the promiscuous gray squirrel happens in March. Most of the grays will make their nests in tree branches or cavities. It’s easy to spot a gray squirrel nest high in the tree tops. They’re dome shaped and made of leaves and twigs. Lined with shredded leaves and bark, I imagine both kinds of nests are a cozy place to raise a litter of babies. And then there are the attic dwellers that line their nests with insulation. Now is a good time to check the house for missing soffits and spots that are being chewed. Check again in July when they’re looking for a place to have a second litter. Yearling females have one litter, and older females usually have two litters a year. That’s a lot of squirrels.
After a 40 to 44 day gestation a litter of two to seven babies are born. An average litter is two or three babies. They weigh one-half ounce, are hairless and blind. Squirrels are slow to mature. Their eyes won’t open until they are four to five weeks old. For comparison, a rabbit’s eyes open in 11 days. They won’t be weaned for eight to 10 weeks, and then won’t leave the nest for another week or two. If they make it through their first year of life their odds increase for the second year. After that, they’re likely to live around six years.
When they aren’t raiding the bird feeder and outsmarting us each time we try a new method of keeping them out, gray squirrels have a great diet. They eat a lot of fruits and berries. They favor black cherry trees, and that happens to be where I most often see the one gray squirrel that lives out here. Beech, acorns and hazelnuts are eaten as well. Their memory and sense of smell are impressive when it comes to finding those nuts months later. Maple and ash seeds aren’t a big part of the diet but in a hard winter ash seeds and tree buds can carry them through to spring. If you’ve found a pile of cones beneath a fir tree you’ve found a midden made by a gray squirrel. They stash mushrooms in trees the same way they bury nuts in the ground.
We wait for the first signs of life in early spring. Flower bulbs break through the surface one day but soon after there might be nothing left but a hole. Gray squirrels love flower bulbs. They’ll dig them up and stash them elsewhere. To slow them down you can cover your bulbs with one-inch chicken wire, then cover that with soil. The squirrels might still dig up a bulb or two but the rest should be safe.
Gray squirrels seem much bigger than they really are. From tail to nose they’re 18” to 20” but about half of their length comes from their tail. They weigh one to 1.5 pounds. The males are larger, and they’re dominate except to females that have litters. Their long lean bodies, sharp nails, and the big tail they use for balance make them built for life in the canopy.
Gray squirrels communicate through calls and body language. In March you’ll hear “kuk,” “qua” and moans from females looking for males. When startled or alarmed young squirrels let out a shrill cry that they outgrow as adults. Adults “buzz.” Along with all that noise, foot stomping and tail wagging make their displeasure known.
Hawks, owls, bobcat and lynx, coyotes and fox, weasels and minks dine on gray squirrel, and so do humans. Our hunting season for gray squirrel is October 1 through December 31, and if you’re into falconry, that season extends through February 28.
A couple of interesting facts: gray squirrels have a higher rate of albinism than any other rodent, and on the opposite end, they have a black phase. I spotted one black gray squirrel while on the interstate and wished I could stop to take a better look. And, they swim. They don’t swim often but they do swim well enough to take a dip in the ocean. I suppose with so many predators wanting to eat you, swimming comes in handy from time to time.