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How (and Why) to Peacefully Coexist With Squirrels

Wildlife experts make the case for learning to embrace one of nature’s best helpers.

The Washington Post

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Bill Carver immediately recognizes the sound of nibbling rodent teeth on his roof.

“I hear it … and I’m jumping up and banging on the side of the camper, or running out the door to yell at them,” he says. “I’ve stopped short of getting a slingshot, but the temptation is overwhelming.”

Carver, 64, lives in an RV full-time, working as a campground host in state parks and national forests. Some days, he says, it feels like he’s surrounded by the enemy.

We’re talking, of course, about squirrels.

“They’re capable of a tremendous amount of damage,” he says. They’ve chewed his insulation and the cover of his grill. They knock over his propane tanks and leave piles of nut shells on his steps and picnic table. He worries they’ll chew the electrical wiring, or worse, the sewer hoses. “It’s an ongoing battle,” Carver says. “Constant vigilance and concern.”

Carver has even taken his frustration to social media, where he runs a small Facebook group called “Squirrel Haters of America,” though he concedes “hate” might be too strong a word: “I do enjoy watching their antics. They are incredibly intelligent and athletic. It’s a weird love/hate thing, I suppose.”

Squirrels are everywhere (there are more than 200 species in the world, and total population estimates range from millions to billions), and despite the fact that they are cute, most of the attention they get is negative. People stress over keeping them out of attics, birdfeeders and garden beds, but “we don’t really think about their more complex roles in our ecosystems and our daily lives,” says Alex Potash, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Florida’s Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation.

Even among the scientific community, there’s little focus on the critters. “There’s actually so little known about them ecologically,” says Noah Perlut, professor and director of “Project Squirrel” at the School of Marine and Environmental Programs, University of New England. “When I first started the project I looked at the literature and couldn’t believe there was not a single published ecological study on gray squirrels in New England.”

Experts say that if people learned more about squirrels, they may find them a lot more lovable. North America is home to gray and red squirrels, fox squirrels, flying squirrels and other members of the Sciuridae family (think chipmunks, marmots, groundhogs and prairie dogs), and they all perform important ecosystem services.

The value of squirrels

One of the most important things squirrels do is also probably the thing they’re best known for: hiding acorns and nuts. Because they don’t hibernate, Potash says, squirrels spend much of the year, well, squirreling away food for the winter. In the fall, that means collecting and burying as much as they can find. And while they have an uncanny ability to remember where their stash is, some of those nuggets inevitably go unrecovered.

“Maybe the squirrel dies, or can’t find it,” Potash says, “but for whatever reason that acorn stays in the ground, germinates and grows into a tree.” His research has found that squirrel behavior is one of the biggest factors influencing forest regeneration and where trees — and plenty of other plants — grow.

“They need to eat year-round, right, so it’s not just acorns,” Potash adds. “They’re doing lots of seed distribution because they eat lots of other plants and berries. They’re even spreading fungus: when they go digging, they get covered in fungal spores, and then they go dig somewhere else and disperse them.”

Thanks to their size and abundance, squirrels have another “incredible ecological value,” Perlut says, “but in a manner that makes people a little squeamish. They are critical food; that’s just part of being a small mammal.” Predators include foxes, coyotes, bobcats, birds of prey (such as owls, hawks, and eagles), and even alligators.

How to make peace with squirrels

Lots of people find squirrels annoying, and sure, it’s frustrating when they dig holes in your lawn, chew things they shouldn’t, pilfer from your garden and bird feeders, and occasionally even find their way into your house. But the first step toward living more peacefully alongside them is to understand why they do those things.

“They’re so social, and they spend so much of their day watching and learning and observing,” Perlut says. “They have adapted incredibly to being around us. Think about how sketchy it is, for example, for a squirrel to live in a park in a major city, the danger of that. Between the cars, the food items that could kill them, people hurting them, other animals eating them; the fact that they can live and even thrive through all those threats is pretty remarkable.”

Because they’ve adapted so well to sharing their habitat with humans, squirrels have learned that a garden or a bird feeder provides a safe, dependable meal. And, as any homeowner who’s heard the telltale pitter-patter across their ceiling knows, they’ve figured out that an attic can be a nice warm place to raise a squirrel family. Many of those annoyances are easy to avoid, though.

Most species only need a 3-inch or smaller hole to get into the house, so be sure to seal any small gaps around gutters and attic windows, repair rotting wood they can chew through, and place mesh or hardware cloth behind openings like vents.

“If we can keep our houses tight, squirrels will find plenty of natural habitat to nest in,” Perlut says.

As for your garden, netting or hardware cloth can help keep them away, but there are other natural repellents you can try. Planting alliums — think garlic and onions — around the edges of the garden, for example, can make it smell unpleasant to squirrels. The same is true for some flowers, such as marigolds and geraniums. And if all else fails, squirrels are sensitive to capsaicin, the compound that makes peppers hot. Plant a few spicy varieties, or just sprinkle a liberal amount of chili powder around the perimeter as a deterrent.

For birdfeeders, there are plenty of models that claim to be “squirrel-proof,” but the aforementioned intelligence (not to mention their climbing and jumping abilities) makes it tough to really keep squirrels out. Putting a baffle — a cone-shaped barrier — on the pole can help keep them from climbing up, but the experts agree the better way to deal with squirrels at the feeder is to simply embrace them.

“People with bird feeders bring up their frustrations to me all the time,” Perlut says. “I’m always curious why they don’t like the squirrels. Aren’t you feeding wildlife because you want to see them? Why is it you only want to see birds, rather than birds and squirrels together? They are wild animals that are deserving of our love and appreciation and study.”

Potash says people should feel lucky to be surrounded by squirrels. “If I want to see a bear, I have to go out in the middle of the woods and track it down and do all these things,” he says. “But I can walk right outside my door and see some squirrels.”

Kate Morgan is a freelance writer in Richland, Pa.

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This post originally appeared on The Washington Post and was published February 21, 2024. This article is republished here with permission.

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