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Making The Nature Scene: Squirrels, squirrels, squirrels!

Madison’s grey squirrels are nutty and living it up this fall.

Madison’s grey squirrels are nutty and living it up this fall.

Squirrel photo by Peter O’Connor on Flickr, illustrated frame by Maggie Denman.

In Making The Nature Scene, Tone Madison explores the splendor of the outdoors in the Madison area (and beyond), and encourages Madisonians to think more deeply about their natural and built surroundings.

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The trees are changing colors and so are the squirrels. That’s a seasonal observation, not a psychedelic-induced one. Trees are losing their leaves. Squirrels are growing seasonal white tufts behind their tiny ears for warmth. Our wiley neighbors are extra nutty this time of year, making threatening screeching noises from branches above, lurking shiftily with a nut in their mini maws or even throwing nuts at dogs (according to reports). 

In Madison, grey squirrels abound. Eastern grey squirrels, to be exact. They squirrel up the eastern half of the United States and parts of south central Canada. You can also find these chubby dudes in beer caves across the state, decorating New Glarus Brewing Company’s Fat Squirrel nut brown ale. Cheers!

Madison is historically a primo spot for squirrels, says Scott Craven, emeritus professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Wildlife Ecology. “It’s a big city, heavily treed, lots of parks,” Craven says. Green spaces like Picnic Point and the UW-Madison Arboretum give squirrels ample space to scamper. With this year’s abundant nut crop and moderate weather, he says, many squirrels will survive the coming winter.

Squirrels are living off of the land, burying walnuts, acorns, and corn caches to sniff out later. “They don’t find all of them, so seed disbursement and tree planting is a service they provide,” Craven says. Even when squirrels try to cross the road and don’t make it to the other side, what they’ve eaten is dispersed. 

Throughout the year, squirrels also eat berries and fruits. They’ve even been known to eat eggs out of nests. As anyone with a birdfeeder knows, these acrobatic mofos love to raid a birdfeeder. But they’re on the run from horned owls, some hawks, foxes, and coyotes. Squirrels’ top predators are humans in cars. On occasion, a cat or dog will take out a squirrel too. 

All of that nut-snarfing helps them keep up their energy. And they need it. Squirrels, which can live as long as 12 years, have two breeding seasons. The first is in February and March, followed by another in July. Gestation is about 44 days for the litters of two to four “kits.” Squirrels prefer to spend the winter in a tree hollow. Their second choice is a globular rainproof nest, or drey, built in high branches. Dreys are made of leaves, twigs, moss, dried grass, and even feathers for insulation. These rodents often sneak into the underside of roof eaves and try to spend the winter in an attic and even inside of walls. Not cool, y’all. Squirrels get munchy on wiring, creating a fire hazard.

You’ve probably noticed that many grey squirrels aren’t grey. The color differentiation is simply genetic, Craven says. Squirrel colors can range from black, or melanastic, to albino white. And they molt throughout the year, adding to their psychedelic abilities. Some cities, like Reedsburg, Wisconsin, are known for black squirrels. If humans don’t take a shine to these mutant oddities, very dark and light squirrels are at a disadvantage. Predators can spot them more easily, Craven says. Madison once had an albino squirrel population—in the form of dead, frozen squirrels imported from Missouri. Now-deceased Cress Funeral Home owner and amateur taxidermist Sam Sanfillippo housed them in a free museum in the business’ basement. Some squirrels have noticeably bobbed tails, possibly from fighting with predators and other squirrels. 

“They are acrobatic, they have personalities and they have squabbles with each other,” Craven says. They also pretend to hide nuts if they think a potential thief is eyeing their food. Which suggests they’re scheming, just as I’ve always suspected. If you hear them chattering and see them flicking their tails, it means they’re on alert for predators. Squirrel alert! 

Now, despite your squirrel-taming dreams, it’s illegal to keep wild animals as pets in Wisconsin. Not even if you encounter an adorable, helpless-looking baby squirrel. A young wild animal’s best chance for survival is with its mother. Here’s the recommendation on how to “Keep Wildlife Wild” from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR): 

“If you find a very young squirrel with its eyes still sealed shut, it has probably fallen from its nest. If the kit is not injured, it should be placed back in its nest, if it is safe to do so. If the kit cannot safely be placed back in its nest, place it at the base of the nest tree on a soft, ravel-free cloth (i.e. no loose strings) during daylight hours. There is a good chance the mother will find the kit and return it to the nest herself. Keep an eye on the young squirrel from indoors or from a distance so your presence doesn’t prevent the mother from returning, and so you can watch for possible predators. Unless the mother hasn’t picked up the kit after two hours, or if a squirrel is injured or acting friendly and following people or pets, it should be left alone.”

If you think a squirrel has been orphaned, refer to this handy WDNR flowchart. Spoiler: the final step is never “Bring the kit into your home and make it a family member to the tune of Stuart Little.” Bummer, I know. 

To quell your sorrow, check out this choice squirrel-inspired playlist from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

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