It might seem ironic for birders to celebrate National Squirrel Appreciation Day, particularly when these fuzzy critters can wreak so much havoc with bird feeding stations. But there’s a lot to love about squirrels, and they’re important to birds as well!
What Is a Squirrel?
There are more than 275 species of squirrels in the world, all members of the family Sciuridae, and different squirrel species are found on every continent except Antarctica. They are close relatives of groundhogs, marmots, and chipmunks, as well as beavers and dormice. Squirrels are rodents, and as such their front teeth grow continuously and must be constantly worn down and kept in shape through chewing and gnawing.
Squirrels range in size from just 4 inches to more than 4 feet long, and typically have slender bodies, long bushy tails, and large eyes. Their feet are very flexible and versatile, with a rudimentary thumb that allows them to more easily manipulate objects. Most squirrels are skilled climbers, strong jumpers, and curious, intelligent creatures.
Squirrels live in all types of habitats, and while they’re most readily associated with forests and woodlands, they’re also found in semi-arid deserts, jungles, farmland, and both urban and suburban areas. In general, squirrels are only absent from the most arid, inhospitable desert regions as well as the harshest high tundra regions of the Arctic. In some areas, introduced squirrel species can become dangerously or destructively invasive.
Squirrels and Bird Feeders
Nearly every birder has had run-ins with squirrels. Because these rodents eat a wide range of nuts, seeds, and fruits, they naturally see bird feeders as an easy, abundant food source. Squirrels can quickly strip a feeder of its bounty, and their strong teeth can chew through any feeders made of wood or light plastic. They will climb poles, balance on wires, shimmy down hanging ropes, and perform a wide range of acrobatics in order to reach tasty feeder treats, even puzzling out baffles and working their way around other obstacles for a succulent snack.
Besides raiding feeders, squirrels can easily cause chaos in other ways. Their habit of habitual chewing means different wires – electrical wires, internet cables, telephone wires, holiday light strings, etc. – are at risk from tiny teeth, and squirrels will also chew on patio furniture, wooden siding and shingles, garden tools, and whatever else they find. They love cozy spaces for dens and nests, and will find their way into attics, crawlspaces, and walls, causing property damage and unwelcome messes. They will dig up gardens and flowerbeds, taunt pets, and generally make mischief wherever they may be.
How Squirrels HELP Birds
But squirrels aren’t all bad, and they can actually be helpful to birds in many ways.
- Squirrels cache seeds and nuts, and uneaten food can sprout and grow into new plants to provide shelter and food not just for squirrels, but for birds and other wildlife.
- Baffles added to feeder to deter squirrels will also protect birds and feeders from other raiders, including raccoons, possums, rats, and less welcome wildlife guests.
- Squirrels are a vital food source for many raptors, including hawks, owls, and eagles. Squirrels killed by cars are also meals for vultures, crows, and other scavenging birds.
- Anxious squirrel chattering and alarm calls can alert nearby birds to predators such as cats, snakes, and other threats, even if birds haven’t yet spotted the hazard.
- Birds can raid bulky squirrel nests for easy nesting material, and some birds may even use old or abandoned squirrel nests to raise their own broods or to forage for insect prey.
- Squirrels digging in the soil aerates the ground for better plant growth for new shelter, and exposes insects such as beetles, worms, ants, and grubs that ground-foraging birds will eat.
Not only do squirrels provide these tangible benefits in the yard, but their crazy antics can be entertaining to watch, and you never quite know what a squirrel might do or what surprises one might have in store.
National Squirrel Appreciation Day
Thanks to all that is good about squirrels, as well as their natural cuddly cuteness, National Squirrel Appreciation Day was established in 2001 to promote kindness toward squirrels and awareness of their role in our ecosystems. To celebrate this holiday and thank squirrels for all they do for us and for the birds, consider…
- Adding a special treat for squirrels in your yard, such as an extra handful of nuts on the ground, a corn cob to chew, or just tossing a handful or two of seed around for their foraging.
- Supporting a local wildlife rehabilitator and all the work they do with local injured squirrels and abandoned squirrel kits. Monetary, material, and time donations are always welcome.
- Creating a dedicated squirrel-feeding station with specialized feeders (some include puzzles and toys for squirrels), which will also help keep squirrels away from bird feeders.
- Avoid any pest control devices that could be harmful to squirrels, such as toxic chemicals or glue traps (both of which can also be dangerous for birds and other wildlife).
Yes, squirrels can cause the occasional trouble in the yard and are responsible for more than their share of aggravations, but they’re still a valuable part of our ecosystem and the habitats we – birds, squirrels, and humans – all share. Happy National Squirrel Appreciation Day!