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Feeding Squirrels: What You Should Know

feeding squirrels
Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pexels - Pixabay

People love feeding squirrels when they show up in their backyards during the fall and winter months. But should you do this? We’ll look at which squirrel foods are species-appropriate and how to feed them responsibly.

Squirrels are part of the family Sciuridae which is made up of small and medium-size rodents. They are indigenous to the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa, and live mainly in coniferous, deciduous, and mixed forests. As tree dwellers, squirrels are excellent climbers and only come down to the ground to search for food. 

Squirrels are increasingly conquering human-dominated habitats. More and more, they can be found in cities, parks, or home gardens. They like to stay close to people for food and shelter.

We humans often take a liking to these little animals and are tempted to feed them. But before feeding squirrels, it is important to know what they eat in their natural habitat.

A Squirrel’s Natural Diet

tree squirrel food
Squirrels are tree dwellers, and trees play a huge role in their diets. They eat buds, leaves, nuts, and bark. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pexels - Maddie Frenz )

Unlike other forest dwellers, squirrels don’t hibernate, meaning they don’t bulk up their weight before the colder months. Instead, they collect nuts and seeds in the fall and bury them nearby so they have an ample supply of food throughout the winter. Considering squirrels eat about 1 pound of food per week, they have to store quite a bit.

Most people think squirrels only eat nuts, but it turns out that’s a myth. Squirrels are actually omnivores, and some of the things they snack on may surprise you. Types of squirrel food include:

  • Nuts and Seeds: For example, squirrels eat acorns, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, beechnuts, pine nuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and poppy seeds. When feeding squirrels, most people tend to focus on this category of food.
  • Small insects: Grasshoppers, crickets, caterpillars, and larvae.
  • Eggs and small animals: Typically only eaten when food is scarce, a squirrel diet can even include young chicks and baby birds.
  • Fruit and Vegetables: Squirrels like squash, mushrooms, berries, corn, broccoli, and apples.
  • Bark, twigs, buds, and shoots: These provide nutrients and fiber.

Squirrels contribute to forest regeneration and the spread of different tree species: Buried seeds that have been forgotten often germinate and grow into new trees.

Feeding Squirrels: Should You Do It?

feeding squirrels
Doing yard work can cause squirrels to become confused about where their food stashes are hidden. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pexels - Lisa Fotios )

Opinions differ on whether or not feeding squirrels is responsible. Some people believe that they are wild animals that shouldn’t be lured into the garden and fed. They argue that it’s better for squirrels to forage exclusively in their natural habitat than for them to come into contact with people. 

But many animal rights activists believe that changing climate and environmental conditions are making it more difficult for squirrels to accumulate adequate food reserves. Hazel and beech trees drop their nuts too early during hot, dry summers. This results in squirrels being less able to gather enough food for fall and winter, and they are more dependent on other sources of food. 

Even our gardening patterns make it more difficult for squirrels to maintain their stockpile. They often mark their hiding places with natural landmarks. Gardening and park maintenance can cause the squirrels’ natural marking points to be lost, resulting in disoriented animals that can’t find their food supply.  

There is no right answer when it comes to feeding squirrels. If you do want to feed them, it’s probably best to temporarily help them find food in the fall and winter months, and let them fend for themselves the rest of the year. 

Things to Keep In Mind When Feeding Squirrels 

squirrel food
However tempting it may be, letting squirrels eat from your hands is a very bad habit for them to get into. They’re wild animals and should be treated as such. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pexels - Pixabay )

If you decide in favor of feeding squirrels, there are a few things you should keep in mind to help them forage in the most species-appropriate way possible:

  • Avoid close contact with the animals – don’t let them eat from your hand. To prevent squirrels from becoming too accustomed to human company, place special feeding stations in the garden. This will allow you to feed them without getting too close. 
  • Hang the feeders high up in the tree to protect them from dogs, cats, and foxes. A large birdhouse would work, as squirrels and birds can easily share feeders.
  • Follow the squirrels’ natural diet, whether you choose to make your own mix or buy special squirrel food from a pet store. They especially like sunflower seeds, nuts, and fresh or dried fruit. 
  • Clean the feeding station regularly. Bread or other food scraps that can produce mold are dangerous for squirrels. Line the feeder with newspaper and change it regularly.  
  • Squirrels also get thirsty! Add shallow bowls of water near the feeder. Clean and refill them daily. This will help squirrels and other wildlife during the fall and winter months.  

If you decide against feeding squirrels for the reasons mentioned above, there are other ways to help them. For example, you can fill your garden with diverse, native plants. Hazelnut bushes or nut trees will provide a rich food source for the animals without anyone directly feeding the squirrels. 

This article has been translated from German by Karen Stankiewicz. You can find the original here: Eichhörnchen füttern: Was sie fressen und was du beachten solltest

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