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squirrel eating apple

Squirrel Food – So Much More Than Acorns

If you ask just about anyone what squirrels eat, the first answer from will be “nuts.” The image of the squirrel with a nut, either in hand or in the pursuit of one, is such a common idea that most people are unaware that not only do squirrels eat a variety of foods, but that their dietary choices have a huge impact on their environments as well as ours.

Nuts are an important staple of the squirrel diet, but depending on where they are living, other foods may be easier to forage. Additionally, squirrels are omnivores rather than subsisting on a purely herbivore menu. In some cases, squirrels will eat bugs, eggs, or baby birds if finding other foods is difficult. In general, squirrels prefer the less risky food options that won’t result in an angry bird.

Eating the young of another animal will certainly change the local population, but where squirrels have the most impact is in regards to their nut and seed diet and, more specifically, the way they go about reserving that food for later.

Squirrel Diets Changing The Forest—One Nut At A Time

Gray squirrels, common to areas where hardwood nut trees abound, habitually bury their nuts for storage. In anticipation of winter famine, these squirrels will harvest far more food than is needed. Some buried nuts are forgotten, others not needed because the squirrel who hid them didn’t survive to find them later. These forgotten or abandoned nuts become the next generation of hardwood nut trees that support multiple other species. These animals depend on the regenerating forest for their very specific habitat requirements.

Red squirrel eating

As squirrel habitats shrink, change, or reshape due to anything from human interference to natural disaster, squirrels with different storing habits are faced with environments they have not necessarily adapted to working with in the symbiotic ways of their natural setting. In one such case, the red squirrel is being pushed into the hardwood forest habitats of the gray squirrel. Since their diets are compatible, the red squirrel continues to flourish.

The problem arises when, according to Rob Swihart, wildlife ecologist from Purdue University, the red squirrels store their nuts the way they evolved to store food in their previous environment where, in damp forests of evergreen trees, they piled their pine cones for protection from moisture. Since the nuts are not being buried by the more prolific red squirrels, the nuts dry out and fail to grow into trees.

This lack of squirrel burying and subsequent tree growth has a direct impact on forest and the composition of trees. Since the tree growth is affected, so is the native animal population that depends on the health of the forest for survival.

Feeding A Squirrel: Not Nothing But Nuts

Keeping a squirrel as a pet may not be legal depending on local laws so many enthusiasts opt to leave food out for their neighborhood wild squirrels. Knowing the proper nutrition for the squirrels can have a tremendous effect on their health and that of their young.

Experts in squirrel rehabilitation counsel a varied, natural diet if possible. Squirrels eat particular foods in the wild for the nutrients as well as the upkeep of their teeth. Like all rodents, squirrels must constantly chew to keep their front teeth from over growing.

While food specifically formulated for squirrels can be purchased online or in pet stores, there are squirrel food recipes available for homemade squirrel food. As long as the nutritional considerations are being addressed, and the food is being made available in a safe place for the animals, many people happily and successfully attract squirrels to watch and observe for the season after season.

Some foods deemed nutritious for squirrel consumption include:

  • Acorns
  • Hazelnuts
  • Pecans
  • Roasted, but unsalted, pumpkin seeds
  • Mealworms live or dried
  • Pine cones
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Pears
  • Carrots
  • Various types of squash

Go here to view the full list from the Rainbow Wildlife Rescue.

As with any mammal, a well-balanced diet will most benefit the squirrel.

Squirrels As Chefs and Farmers

Squirrels can be picky eaters, but will make do in almost any situation. Human food, especially which is high in salt, sugar, or chemical content, is particularly threatening because if it tastes good, the squirrel is not going to pass up free food.

squirrel found maple syrup

In the wild, some squirrels go to extraordinary lengths to ensure they are well fed during the winter months. Burying nuts or stacking pinecones is common enough, but some squirrels make their own jerky. The red squirrel will take the time to hang mushrooms to dry in the trees to better preserve the food for later. The planning and effort involved in preserving perishable food speak to the remarkable planning abilities of the squirrel.

Another food staple not usually associated with the squirrel diet is maple syrup. To harvest maple syrup, the red squirrel must not only score the bark of the maple to elicit sap from the tree, but the sap must dehydrate in the sun, leaving the sugar-rich residue to be licked up by the patient squirrel. This residue can supply much needed caloric fuel for a squirrel during the harsh winter months.

Squirrels can also plan far enough in advance to bury certain nuts for certain seasons based on their growth schedules. The gray squirrel will only bury red oak acorns as the white oak acorns will begin to grow too quickly for use if the acorn is buried. The red oak acorns get buried for future use while the white oak acorns get eaten right away.

In some cases, squirrels have been observed digging up their buried acorns, biting through the nut to prevent growth, and then reburying the acorn for later use. By manipulating the growth of their food source, these squirrels are effectively farming.

Squirrels, whether from Alaska or Mexico, are remarkable little creatures. They are so abundant because they are adaptable, intelligent, and will find food anywhere.