5th in a six part series: Introduction, Skunks, Raccoons, Coyotes, Squirrels and Opossums
I have a friend who grimaces whenever I mention squirrels. He has an avocado tree, the squirrels bite the avocados to test for ripeness. You can feel his anguish as he gazes at a tree full of avocados with bites missing. To make matters worse, the eastern fox squirrel isn’t even a native to Southern California. Our native is the gray squirrel. The grays have now moved to the mountain areas and the larger fox squirrel, with the reddish coloring, is the one we see locally. When I first moved to Torrance I never saw squirrels of any kind, so I wondered where the ones I was now seeing came from. There is likely more than one origin story, but this one is particularly interesting - it begins in 1904 when the Westwood Veterans Administration building was a home for Civil War soldiers. Many of those ex-soldiers were from the South and they often brought eastern fox squirrels with them when they moved west. Some of these squirrels were pets, some escaped and naturalized, and some wound up in the stew pot. One way or another, the eastern fox squirrel out-competed the gray squirrel for food and shelter.
Squirrels build several different nests. They like to remodel woodpecker holes to create a snug winter dwelling. They also make a large summer nest made of twigs and leaves. Because we have mild winters in the South Bay, when a tree cavity isn’t available squirrels may winterize their summer nest or move to an available attic. Their main nest is woven out of sticks, grasses, moss and leaves and it’s very sturdy. They also build rough, casual nests for emergency hideaways.
Squirrels are diurnal, they sleep at night and hunt for food during the day. Squirrels are also omnivores. Besides avocados; they eat many other plants and sometimes meat. Their usual diet consists of fungi, bulbs, tubers, seeds, nuts and fruit. They will also eat eggs, small insects, caterpillars and even young snakes. You will see them burying nuts for eating later because shelled food doesn’t spoil quickly and nuts provide high energy fats. If you have avocado or other fruit trees it’s difficult to deter a hungry squirrel. Some people have success using deterrents such as non-toxic sprays, tree nets or tree collars. Just don’t choose poison as it spreads up the food chain. Hawks eat squirrels. Raccoons and coyotes will eat them too if they happen to catch one.
If you have squirrels in or near your home you likely hear them chatting. Squirrels have a lot to say and a large vocabulary. They make assorted clucking and chucking sounds in a language we don’t understand. Some sounds are universally understood: screams warning of danger or high- pitched whines during mating for example, and the ever-useful growl. The stance of a squirrel also communicates. When they feel threatened, they stand straight up with their tail over their backs and flick their tail. In addition to sounds and posture, they use scent markings to communicate with other squirrels. They have several sets of vibrissae (hairs or whiskers) above and below their eyes and on their chin, nose and forearm. They use these as touch receptors to learn about their environment. They also have excellent vision and well-developed senses of hearing and smell.
Squirrels are smart enough to distinguish human friends from human foe. If you feed them they can be tamed to take food from your hand. This sounds nice but they can’t always distinguish fingers from food, and accidental bites hurt. I know this from experience.
During mating season the males chase the females. The female will mate with the male that can keep up with her; clever girl. The squirrel family is primarily mom and babies. Squirrels don’t mate for life and males don’t help with raising the babies. Mating season is mid-December to early January and then again in June. Two litters a year is normal for a mature female, and she’ll have her first litter at about a year old, but she’ll produce only one litter her first year. Gestation period is 44-45 days, and most births occur in mid-March with second litters appearing in July. The average litter size is three but this varies by season and food availability. At birth squirrels are blind, hairless and helpless. Mom spends the first 6 week of her babies’ life in the nest nursing and caring for her family. The newborn’s eyes open at 6 weeks, they are weaned between 12-14 weeks, and are self-supporting at 16 weeks. Most juveniles take off in September/October but some may den with mom for their first winter. Sometimes the babies fall out of the nest and may be rescued but that takes a lot of time, patience and dedication. There is a story about a young girl who rescued a squirrel, titled Sofia and Baby, in the winter 2020-21 edition of the Marsh Mailer which is available on our website.
I recommend enjoying squirrels and all wildlife from a safe distance. Keep your attic openings securely closed off, as a squirrel nesting in your attic can cause damage. Sadly, there is no easy answer for protecting those avocados.
See You on the Preserve
President, Friends of Madrona Marsh