50 Shades of Grey Squirrel

I am currently not on speaking terms with groundhogs from Pennsylvania or WaterLine publishers.  I’m not sure who I am more upset with—Punxsutawney Phil for forecasting six more weeks until spring or Josh Olive for jinxing us with his prediction that winter was over weeks ago.  I blame them both because I am tired of this horribly chilly weather we have been having.  I can’t wait to say goodbye to the 50 and 60 degree days and hello to the 80’s and 90’s again.  I like my weather like I like my music, nothing lower (or earlier) than 70’s will do.


Of course, with that warmer weather comes the onslaught of little paw pitter patter.  Spring brings baby season to PRWC.  We already have quite a few eastern grey squirrel babies at Peace River Wildlife Center.  This species is known to breed twice a year, especially when food is plentiful.  During a heavy mast year, when trees like oaks produce many acorns, the older females can produce a second litter in the autumn in southwest Florida (in the summer in more northern climes).  Most of the squirrels will breed in the spring though and since our weather here in southwest Florida is relatively mild (if you ask anyone but me) that process has already begun.  Some of our local squirrel populations take advantage of particularly mild winters to breed year round.


The eastern grey squirrel shows evidence of some pretty complex brain activity.  He has spatial awareness and memory for the multiple caches of food that he hoards and stores in many locations.  He uses both local and distant landmarks to revisit these sites and smell once he gets close enough to them.  He will even use deceptive behaviour to protect his caches from rivals.  If he is being observed when trying to place food in a cache, he will prepare a site as usual (dig a hole in the ground or clear a crevice in a tree), pretend to place the food in it while hiding it in his mouth, and go so far as to cover the empty bogus cache site.


Squirrels are one of the only mammals that can climb down a tree head-first.  They do so by rotating their ankles so that the claws on their rear feet point backwards.  Many other mammals can climb up a tree and a few can descend, but like cats and foxes, they must do so backwards.


Squirrel nests, or dreys, are large hollow balls composed of leaves and twigs, often lined with moss or feathers.  They can be dislodged from their location in the fork of a tree by high winds or tree trimming.  If there are babies in a disrupted nest it is important to leave the uninjured babies alone and the mother will retrieve them and move them to a safe location and a different nest.


The squirrel’s gestation period is about 40 days.  The average litter size is one to four, but can be up to eight.  The young are weaned by 10 weeks and begin to leave the nest by 12 weeks of age.  PRWC has admitted 11 baby squirrels already this season.  They are currently in four different foster homes, where they will be fed via a syringe with a special nipple and cared for until they are weaned.  At that time the juvenile squirrels will be returned to PRWC and placed in communal prerelease cages to get them ready for survival in the wild.  We anticipate the addition of many more baby squirrels over the next few weeks.  Anyone interested in learning how to do mammal home care for PRWC is encouraged to call the office at 941-637-3830 to schedule training.


Our resident eastern grey squirrel, Leonard P. Squigford, is off of display right now.  He is going through some challenges in his “adolescence.”  Born last November, he is now approximately 3 months old and is starting to mature.  It is at this age that most people who thought it would be a great idea to raise a wild squirrel as a pet begin to think perhaps those crazy people at PRWC were right after all.  Wild animals do not make good pets (and it is illegal to keep them without the proper permits and licenses.)


Unfortunately, our little Squiggy cannot be released.  He has a congenital condition in his brain that affects his balance and coordination.  While that portion of his brain does not function normally, the rest of his brain works very well.  He has been smart enough to take advantage of the accommodations we have made in his habitat to learn how to feed himself and get around without falling great distances.  He does not like the small cage in which he resides during the day while on display at PRWC though.  We have applied for a grant to build him a bigger habitat on site, but for now he lives in a ferret cage in the home of one of our subpermittees and gets the run of the house when they are home.


He could get out of his small cage on site more often, but many of his handlers are having a difficult time adjusting to his needs.  He doesn’t mind being picked up but knows his limitations and so gets nervous if not handled firmly enough.  While the natural inclination is for people to handle him gently so as not to hurt him, he seems to realize that his uncoordinated movements could result in a fall if he were to jerk out of someone’s hands because they were holding him too loosely.  So, while most people mean well, they frighten him and he, in turn, frightens them.  He does not like to be mollycoddled.  Like Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present in Scrooged, he “likes the rough stuff,” but understandably few people are ready for 50 shades of grey squirrel.  So until we can build him a more appropriate enclosure at PRWC he will be making only occasional appearances.

by-Robin Jenkins, DVM

Squiggy climbing a tree in his lavender harness.
Squiggy climbing a tree in his lavender harness.
Squiggy's head shot--just waiting for Hollywood to call!
Squiggy’s head shot–just waiting for Hollywood to call!
Baby squirrel in stack of volunteer-crocheted nests used for baby mammals and birds.
Baby squirrel in stack of volunteer-crocheted nests used for baby mammals and birds.