The squirrels of autumn

Bottle-feeding an eastern grey squirrel.

Labour Day has passed and now summer is over.  Tell that to the thermometers in SW Florida that refuse to budge below the high 90s during the day.  Or is summer only officially over on September 23?  It’s hard to keep track when you live in the land of endless summer.  The kids may be back in school, but we still have a good two months of heat and humidity to deal with.  And I mean a GOOD two months.  I love this stuff!

One undisputable indicator of the season’s change is the squirrel population.  Grey squirrels normally breed in autumn when mast (the edible reproductive part of woody plants, like acorns and nuts) is plentiful.  Some older females will also have a second litter in spring.  Peace River Wildlife Center is seeing an influx of baby squirrels now—so regardless of what the thermometer or calendar tell you, the autumnal equinox is nigh.

There are some 285 species of squirrels around the world.  In peninsular Florida our, predominant species is the eastern grey squirrel.  We also have southern flying squirrels and the occasional fox squirrel.  Squirrels are herbivores but can’t digest cellulose, so their diet must be composed of foods rich in protein, carbohydrates, and fats.  Seeds and nuts fit this bill quite well.  When food is scarce, some eastern grey squirrels will eat a few insects, butlying squirrels are much more inclined to include insects as a major portion of their diet.

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, and uses both local and distant landmarks to revisit these sites.

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.  He’ll even 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.

Eastern Grey Squirrel Nest
Eastern grey squirrel drey

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 drey, it is important to leave the uninjured babies alone.  The mother will retrieve them and move them to a safe location and a different nest.  Give her a few hours with no people in the immediate vicinity.  If she doesn’t come back for them, take them to PRWC.

We are open from 8am to 6pm, seven days a week for injured animal intake.  If you find a baby after hours, place him in a warm, quiet, dark location until morning when you can transport him to us.  He doesn’t need to eat anything in that short period of time.  Actually, feeding him the wrong thing or in the wrong way can be more detrimental than having him go hungry for a few hours.

If you aren’t able to transport him to PRWC in over 24 hours, offer nothing more than dilute Gatorade, Pedialyte, or water.  Feed it slowly so he doesn’t aspirate (inhale the liquid into his lungs.)  That will keep him hydrated without risking upsetting his tummy with a strange formula.  Even the best formula, made specifically to feed baby squirrels, is not exactly the same as his mom’s milk, so he must be weaned onto it slowly.  And a formula made for puppies and kittens is even more dissimilar to what he naturally eats.  Feeding full strength formula too quickly can result in diarrhea or worse, and can be fatal for a tiny baby.

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.  Like all baby mammals, they need to be fed every few hours around the clock.  Our home care volunteers take care of the tykes until they are old enough to come back to the Center to prepare for release.  Anyone interested in being a home care volunteer can call PRWC at 941-637-3830 to register for training.

In the meantime, sit back and enjoy the last bit of summer.  Soon enough the cold weather up north will usher in the barrage of people that will turn our quiet little town into a bustling berg again.  Slow traffic, long lines at the deli, no parking spaces at the restaurants, and all the other signs of a great economy will be upon us soon.

by- Robin Jenkins, DVM