Winter is the best time to spot dens and nests. Usually, we think of bird nests, and we see abandoned ones topped with mounds of snow along roadsides and in shrubs. When we look up, we also spot large clusters of leaves and sticks – squirrel nests.
Squirrels make two types of nests: dens and dreys. Dens are cavities in trees and dreys are the large balls of leaves and sticks that squirrels fashion. From the ground, these dreys look small, but they are really good sized.
Taking in the view from the safety of a tree den.
When squirrel families mature in late summer, the young venture forth to find new lodgings. If the population of squirrels is low and the availability of hollows in trees is high, then squirrels take the dens. These are hollow spaces inside the trunk that squirrels line with leaves and bits of fur and bark. Squirrels do not create these hollows but use them. Wood rot and woodpeckers create the spaces and squirrels make the most of them. Dens offer great protection from the elements and predators and they are warmer. So, squirrels conserve their energy when they must “hole up” during winter storms. When the worst of the harsh weather passes, squirrels begin to stir, digging for nuts and raiding bird feeders.
Squirrels make their dreys near sturdy forks in branches or close to the tree trunk. They will be high up for protection from predators. Usually, a tree might support one or two squirrel nests, but occasionally, we see half a dozen scattered throughout a wide-branching deciduous tree. Squirrel condominiums. These might be secondary homes or extensions of families. Secondary homes tend to be more loosely constructed and are scattered near the main home tree and serve as shelter in case a squirrel gets caught out in the elements or is being chased by a predator.
Each nest begins with a study base of twigs. Scientists have discovered that sometimes squirrels weave grapevines into the structure along with leaves, bark, moss, and twigs for added support. After all, the nest sways in the branches and get buffeted by winds, rain, and snow, so it needs to be strong. Inside, the nest is dry and warm.
When you are driving or walking look up and spot the nests of one of our most industrious small mammals. Squirrels mate in January and soon the young will be born – in the bleak mid-winter maybe in a squirrel condominium near you!
Turkeys and squirrels would make short work of seed, leaving none for the small birds.
Nearly everyone who feeds wild birds sees squirrels gobbling up expensive seed. Elaborate and expensive feeders help birds eat while excluding squirrels. We use a different method.
Plenty of squirrels make Winding Pathways home. So do wild turkeys. We enjoy watching them and don’t mind giving them some seed. Unfortunately, they come in droves and wolf down all the seeds. Each morning we sprinkle some seeds on the lawn for both turkeys and squirrels but we needed to keep them away from a feeder favored by cardinals, chickadees titmice, and other birds.
This homemade excluder seems to stop squirrels and turkeys while allowing in songbirds.
We built a simple but effective squirrel and turkey excluder out of scrap lumber. It’s merely a rectangular box two feet wide and four feet long. The frame is made of 2×2 lumber, the top is of treated ½ inch plywood, and the sides are of 2×2 inch mesh heavy wire. There is no bottom.
We placed a feeder on a homemade picnic table and put the turkey and squirrel excluder over it. One end of the excluder is hinged to the table, making it easy to lift the other side to fill the feeder.
So far squirrels and turkeys have not been able to infiltrate the excluder and stay outside enjoying the cracked corn we’ve spread specially for them.
We love watching frolicking squirrels in our yard and every year we buy bags of corn for them to snack on. We draw the line when they climb up to feeders and gobble expensive seeds meant for chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers.
Bird feeder companies all tout their “squirrel proof” feeders and a homeowner can spend a bundle on different feeders just to slow the flow of seed from feeder to squirrels’ mouths. Some preventions work better than others but a reliable company is Droll Yankee.
But, being partly of Yankee stock, we took the economical route. To thwart the hungry mammals we mounted our feeders on steel pipes and even ringed some with metal stove pipe. Somehow they managed to dig claws into the metal, climb and feast on expensive seed.
Then we discovered spray grease. It’s sold in hardware stores and is meant to spray on drawer slides, hinges, and other balky metal parts. We sprayed it on the metal pipes holding up the feeders. Squirrels gingerly put their feet on the pipe and backed off as soon as they felt the grease. It works.
Spray grease only lasts a few weeks and needs to be reapplied, but it is a simple way to discourage squirrels from climbing to feeders.
Even in the teeth of a storm, squirrels feast to tide them over.
Boldly the fox squirrel hunkered down at the window feeder.
Quite the acrobat, this squirrel hung for more than 30 minutes eating seed.
A cautious squirrel scoping out the action.
A hungry squirrel
Squirrels have an amazing ability to climb just about any vertical pole.
This squirrel learned to climb the metal deflector pole and reached into the hanging feeder.
This grease works for a while. Remember to re-apply.
Squirrels are probably North America’s most acrobatic animals. They’re able to do seemingly impossible physical maneuvers.
Squirrels “wrists” articulate so they can climb agiley up and down.
One is hanging by their rear toes to snatch seeds from a hanging feeder. How do they do it?
Raccoons and house cats can climb up trees fairly rapidly but descending back to earth is a problem. Both must creep down tail first. It’s awkward and slow.
Squirrels, in contrast, can go up and down head first quickly and gracefully thanks to a special adaptation. Their ankles, or wrists, articulate. The squirrel may be heading down the trunk but its feet and claws point upward, enabling a good grip on the bark and a speedy dexterous descent.
Squirrels are outstanding tree climbers but once in a while they slip and fall. Twice at Winding Pathways we’ve seen squirrels fall from the top of big oaks. As they fall the hapless animals flattened themselves out and hit the ground like a swimmers belly flop. In both cases the animals shook themselves, looked around and scampered off unhurt. Imagine what would happen to a human falling 50 feet!
Next time you spot a squirrel hanging from a feeder or scampering down a tree examine its feet through binoculars. You may see upward facing feed on a downward facing animal. You Tube has some great close ups of squirrels paws and wrists. Enjoy the show!
We are lucky to have four species of oak trees on our property. Huge white oaks hug the north end with a few red oaks scattered between them. Two medium sized black oaks live close to the house and a young bur oak is just beginning to cast shade south of the house.
Millions of other homeowners are also fortunate to have oaks shading their property. They are one of the most widespread trees, and are beautiful, sturdy, valued by wildlife and long lived. A white oak could shade the ground and feed squirrels for up to 400 years. Some species, like red oaks, grow relatively quickly and tolerate moderate shade while most other oaks, like our bur, need full sun and grow slowly.
About 600 oak species are found naturally across the northern hemisphere. Approximately 90 species live in the United States. China boasts around 100 species, and Mexico is probably the world leader in oak diversity with at least 160 species. They have been widely planted in temperate regions including many places where they don’t occur naturally.
Oaks are members of the beech family with the genus name Quercus. It’s rather easy to distinguish an oak tree, but determining just what oak species a tree belongs to can be tricky. Many oaks hybridize with similar oak species and a tree may have characteristics of each parent. Sometimes the shape of an oak leaf near the top of a tree may be shaped differently from a counterpart lower down.
Non-showy oaks flower in mid spring about the time leaves appear. Male blooms are slim, drooping and green or tan in color. Each female flower is a solitary spike. People allergic to the wind borne pollen generally suffer in the spring.
Throughout history oak wood has been readily used by people. Even wine corks are made from the bark of Portuguese oaks. Oak was widely used in the construction of sailing ships. It’s said that the oak sides of the USS Constitution were so tough that British cannonballs bounced back. That’s where the nickname Old Ironsides came from! Oak is the traditional wood for liquor aging barrels but today it is most commonly used for hardwood flooring and furniture. Few woods produce more fireplace heat than oak.
Squirrels are just one of the wildlife species that love acorns. Among the host of other wild animals that relish acorns are deer, bears, woodchucks, wild turkeys and blue jays. However, oak leaves or acorns can be toxic to cows that eat too many. Tannin is the bitter element in oaks and acorns and long ago humans learned how to remove it to create delicious food. Each fall we look forward to harvesting acorns. Few foods are as delicious as maple syrup on warm acorn muffins.
Subscribe to Winding Pathways to learn how to process acorns into food.
For further Information
One of the most fascinating tree books ever written was published back in 1948. It is a two volume set by David Culross Perry. One volume covers trees of eastern North America while its counterpart describes western species. If you spot it for sale at a garage or used book sale snap it up.
Websites, apps and books abound that help identify and learn about trees. Our favorite websites are from the National Arbor Day Foundation at and the US Forest Service. Our favorite tree identification book is the Sibley Guide to Trees.