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MAKING FRIENDS WITH SQUIRRELS
The common squirrel is everywhere. Watching, hanging out with, and giving treats to them is one great, and not too expensive way to enjoy being outdoors. Their ways of communicating with you and with each other are endearing beyond words!
This squirrel photo story has got to be the ultimate!
Some endearing facts about squirrels:
Squirrels are very intelligent and curious. In a group of squirrels, a few can become almost as friendly as a cat or dog. They know very well that any sudden movement by a human could cause them to be injured, so they will always be slightly wary, even with people they have come to love. If you are trying to become friends with a squirrel, the most important thing is to understand their wariness, and do all you can to show them you will do them no harm.
The best way to befriend any wild animal is to feed them. Not all foods are healthy for these little friends. Here are some ideas on feeding squirrels:
If your park has healthy shrubbery or suitable trees, consider HIDING water dishes or polyethylene cups so they are not readily seen by other park users or maintenance staff, and refilling them periodically. By means of careful small-then-medium multiple drill bit drilling of sturdy polyethylene cups to prevent cracking, it is possible to attach water cups to the bases of shrubbery or tree trunks in ways where the cups are not readily visible. Hiding small dishes in the center of bushes, or in the tall growth along a creek bed in dry times is another alternative placement.
If you can carry enough water for a dish, those green plastic "saucers" used under flower pots are both inexpensive and the green or dark brown colour blends in well. Crockery is fine too, but always AVOID METAL, as animals' tongues and lips can freeze to metal.
** Whenever I refill water cups, I leave a couple of peanuts as "announcer" peanuts to let wildlife know the cups have been refilled. I usually do my refilling early in the morning so as not to attract attention to the water cups. Are these cups and dishes appreciated? I timed the attendance at one dish on a cold, dry November day, and 40 squirrels visited the dish in 10 minutes!
In sub-freezing weather, I have found that bringing hot tap water out to the cups and dishes is enthusiastically received by squirrels and birds.
If you can't carry large amounts of water, but you do carry a drinking water bottle, you can still help the squirrels and chipmunks by using 1-1/4" large plastic table leg tips as water cups, available in hardware stores. Squirrels and chipmunks benefit from any water at all, especially since dew has become scarce. These leg tips can be hidden more easily than larger cups.
For attaching the larger cups, use stainless steel screws and washers. I'd recommend at least a 1-inch screw length for thin-bark conditions, and at least a 2-inch screw length for thick bark conditions. The square "Robertson" drive screws work best for me, as it is easier to push hard on the screw driver, which is needed to penetrate live wood. I use a #8 screw for smaller trunks, or a #10 screw for larger trunks. Washers on the inside of the cup help spread the holding tension evenly and make cracking the cup less likely.
Cushioning on the inside and outside of the screw hole in the rim of the cups (i.e. between the washer and the cup,) and between the cup and tree or bush trunk, with "Mortite" or other permanently flexible outdoor crack seal material allows the cups to be held firmly, without water leakage, and to provide "give" as the shrubbery or tree grows. ** Check that the crack seal you are using does not result in strong chemicals entering the water. I have found that "Mortite" does not. As years pass, unscrew the attaching screw a turn or so to accommodate growth.
Many suitable water cups come with a molded "rib" around the outside, near the rim. I usually cut the rib off on the tree side, using a hack saw for larger cups, or, I snip it off with diagonal cutting pliers with smaller cups.
When setting water out in winter for animals, don't worry about the water freezing. Animals, squirrels included, know how to scrape a dish of ice so they can drink the ice shavings. Squirrels scrape dishes or cups so well that they scoop out most of the ice. *Avoid* metal dishes to prevent their getting lips or tongues frozen to the metal.
* If you are attempting to get a sick or injured squirrel to take water, which squirrels under stress don't always think to seek out, FLOAT each peanut on the surface of a small, flat cup of water, such as a lid for a plastic food storage cup. This will induce the squirrel to take water with each peanut, significantly improving their health no matter what their condition. In extremely dry weather, winter or summer, treat your squirrel colony to a bag of ice cubes. I have seen squirrels take ice cubes up into trees to enjoy them!
Heavy DEW, frost, or snow and ice provide water to squirrels. They really need extra water in dry years, such as 2002, when almost no dew was deposited for the entire warm weather season. If you notice that the grass isn't dripping wet in the early morning, think about leaving a water dish for squirrels.
Only feed wildlife UNSALTED food of any kind. Squirrels do not always have a source of drinking water close by.
Only feed BREAD when the squirrels have plenty of water (or snow) to drink. Bread on a hot summer day is a bad idea. NOTE: I give all animals only food of quality and freshness that I would eat. Stale bread can contain mold, potentially harmful to animals.
PEANUTS are the least expensive. It is very important that the peanuts be roasted. Raw peanuts can make squirrels sick. You can make sure peanuts are roasted by their colour. (Unroasted peanuts are white, and their shells are soft and hard to open.)
FILBERTS (Hazel nuts) and ALMONDS are more expensive, and the squirrels love them. Filberts and almonds are good to leave when you want to be sure the birds don't get them before the squirrels do.
DO NOT OVERFEED WILDLIFE!
This is extremely important for two reasons. First, feeding them more than "snacks" will cause them to over-populate. It is dreadfully unfair to these creatures to create a lot of babies, and then when you stop feeding them, (and all of us will sooner or later be forced to stop,) to put that large group of animal friends through starvation, and the horrible experience of having to fight their mates and relatives for food!
The way I decide how much to feed is to, generally, give a squirrel as much as they want, while I am right there with them. Leaving any extra is done very sparingly. One exception to that is in the bitter cold weather, I do leave moderate amounts of food where I know for certain squirrel families live.
In summer, water is important, but generally, squirrels' natural food is at least adequate up until the leaves fall. (One exception would be in drought conditions.) Please, don't be a "fair weather feeder," feeding in warm weather but not in cold weather. That puts your local squirrel population under much more stress than nature would otherwise do. If you commit to feeding squirrels, then commit to visiting them with treats in the winter as well.
The second reason for not overfeeding wildlife is that food left around is a nuisance for other park users, say, or private or city property owners. If there is any chance that treats left behind will not soon be taken up by the squirrels, hide in places you know the squirrels will find.
Along with not overfeeding, please, if you know you are going to move, leave for college or the military, or know for any reason you will have to stop feeding and you know the approximate date, TAPER OFF the amount you give your squirrel colony. (Unless, of course, you are one of a group who feed that colony.) I recommend tapering off over two to three months if possible to give your squirrel friends the least discomfort.
Here are some things I've found to be helpful in making friends with these delightful, cute, furry friends:
Always let the SQUIRREL decide how close to come. When you walk towards a squirrel, stop about ten to fifteen feet from the squirrel. You can click your mouth to encourage the squirrel to come closer, but when the squirrel stops, let that be his/her choice. Gently toss the food so it lands in front of the squirrel. Try to aim for a spot where there are no deep grass or leaves. That will make it easier for the squirrel to see the food.
Keep all body movements as quiet and slow as possible. Loud talking or laughing will scare squirrels. When you toss the food, try to keep loose clothing from flapping when your arm moves. Keeping your voice soft will make the squirrels feel comfortable.
Especially, keep your FEET in one spot. The squirrels know your feet carry a lot of weight, and can do them harm. When you look around, if possible, keep your feet in one place without lifting them. I recommend not moving your feet or walking until all squirrels are ten or fifteen feet from you. Keeping your feet perfectly STILL while a squirrel is on the ground near you and eating is a VERY good way to make the squirrel feel comfortable near you.
I recommend not trying to make the squirrel take food from your hand. If a squirrel does this, let it be the squirrel's choice. Many squirrels will take food from your hand, but you can see that most squirrels are nervous doing this. I have had squirrels accidentally put their mouths over my finger instead of taking a peanut from me. They did not bite. This was an accident, and the squirrels did not mean to take my finger.
DO NOT TRY TO GET SQUIRRELS TO TAKE FOOD FROM YOUR HAND IN COLD WEATHER, OR WITH OTHER SQUIRRELS NEARBY. I got one nasty bite because a squirrel wanted to be sure HE got the peanut one cold autumn evening, instead of the other squirrels nearby. He did not want to attack me, he was just nervous, cold, and hungry.
When sitting down or at a picnic table, squirrels may hop up on the bench, the table, or even your lap. You don't need to be afraid of squirrels. Their claws are sharp so they can quickly climb trees, but if the squirrel touches you or climbs on you, you can be sure it just wants food, and does not want to put you in any danger. If you are nervous having a squirrel touch you, just stand up, and the squirrel will move away.
When you finish feeding and want to leave, if a squirrel is on the ground eating near you, step backwards (CHECK that no squirrel is behind you) and walk way around the squirrel. This is very good courtesy and will help that squirrel feel comfortable coming near you when you feed it again.
Most squirrels in southern Ontario are "Eastern Grey" type. Eastern Greys include the all black squirrels too - black or dark brown is just one colour they come in.
If you should find a baby squirrel on the ground, you can pick it up and keep it WARM. Stay at that place for half an hour, and see if a mother squirrel comes looking for the baby. Keep the baby WARM. After half an hour, and you see no other squirrels in the area, take it home, put it in a cardboard box with soft clothing like tee shirts. DO NOT USE TERRY CLOTH TOWELS, BECAUSE THESE CAN BREAK THE CLAWS ON BABY SQUIRRELS.
Lightly cover the baby's body with a fold of cloth, and be sure the baby can keep warm using its own body heat. Do not use a heating pad or heat lamp.
Wait a FULL HOUR, then you can try a medicine dropper with Gatorade. NEVER COW'S MILK. If the baby has a full coat of fur and its eyes are open, a peanut taken out of the shell can be offered. Small sections of fruit may be offered. BUT WAIT AT LEAST AN HOUR after bringing the baby home, say squirrel rehabilitators. If dropper feeding doesn't work, offer a shallow water dish, placed on a cookie sheet, as squirrels often tip dishes by stepping on the rim.
It is URGENT that you immediately call the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, or a nearby veterinarian, and ASK HOW TO CONTACT THE NEAREST LICENCED SQUIRREL REHABILITATOR. It is against the law in Ontario to rehabilitate an orphaned baby squirrel yourself. In Hamilton, the SPCA has been unable to help me when I found an orphaned baby. It was local veterinarians who helped me find a licenced squirrel rehabilitator.
The most adorable thing I learned about squirrels when I found the baby was that they PURR, just like cats. I am so lucky to count squirrels among my friends in high places!
If you are someone who likes the good feelings which flow from helping animals in distress, consider this essay on one specialized form of doing that:
And let's not forget the squirrel's dear little cousin:
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