Red & Gray Squirrels in Massachusetts
Background and Natural History
Both gray and red squirrels are common and abundant in Massachusetts. Gray squirrels are found everywhere, including Marthas Vineyard and Nantucket. However, red squirrels are absent from both islands. Red squirrels are sometimes called "pine squirrels" or "chickarees". The gray squirrel is also known as the "eastern gray squirrel". Both are members of the squirrel family (Sciuridae), along with flying squirrels, chipmunks, and woodchucks.
Gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are medium-sized tree-climbing squirrels. The sexes are similar. Adults average 15-20 inches in total length, with the tail averaging 6-9 1/2 inches. They weigh about 3/4 - 1 1/2 lbs. They are typically grizzled or light gray, with white on the chin, throat, and belly. Melanistic (black) squirrels occur in the north parts of the squirrel's range. Black squirrels are common in the Westfield area of Massachusetts, and occasionally elsewhere.
Red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) are small to medium-sized tree squirrels. Like gray squirrels, the sexes appear similar. They are typically rusty red or reddish brown on the back and white or gray-white on the belly. The tail is rusty, sometimes tinged with yellow. Melanistic red squirrels are uncommon. Adults average 10 1/2 -15 inches, with tails averaging 3 1/2 -6 inches. They weigh about 1/2 - 5/8 lbs.
Gray squirrels are typically found in extensive mature hardwood forestsespecially oak-hickory often with dense understory vegetation. They are found less often in coniferous forests. Gray squirrels are tolerant of human presence and often live in urban or suburban areas with large mature shade trees. Red squirrels are found primarily in coniferous forestspine, spruce, or firwith mature trees preferred over low-growth ones. In suburban areas, they are often found in small pine plantations or woodlots, interspersed with some hardwoods.
Gray squirrels have diverse diets and feed on those items which are seasonally available. However, nut crops, such as oak acorns, hickory nuts, beechnuts, and walnuts, may comprise ¾ of their annual diet. Berries, fruits, seeds, buds, and flowers, as well as cultivated grains, are also eaten. Animal foods are infrequently consumed. Red squirrels are opportunistic, but most commonly feed on conifer seeds. In the northeastern states, piles of cone fragments are often found directly under feeding perches, rather than heaped in "middens" as occurs in the west. Red squirrels also eat fungi, buds, and the inner bark of trees. They also occasionally eat nuts and seeds, fruits and grains, and insect larvae and bird nestlings.
Gray squirrels use both leaf nests and natural cavities for shelter and for rearing of the young. Leaf nests are most commonly constructed in hardwoods; cavities in live trees are preferred over those in snags. Gray squirrels usually breed at about 10-14 months of age. Usually, yearlings have only one litter per year. Adults may breed twice annually, depending on food availability. Winter breeding occurs in January-February, and summer breeding from May to July. The 2-3 feeble young are born after a 44-45 day gestation period and are weaned at 8-10 weeks. Red squirrels tend to prefer tree leaf nests over cavities, but sometimes use rock dens and burrows. Age at first breeding is 10-12 months. Red squirrels typically have a single litter (2 are rare), with 1-7 young born during March-May after a 31-35 day gestation period. The young are weaned at 7-8 weeks.
Gray squirrels are crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) in spring, summer, and autumn, but are active only in midday in winter. These squirrels may be especially active in fall, when nuts are available and squirrels cache food items. However, squirrel sightings may also relate to changes in population size. Young squirrels disperse from spring through fall, usually traveling no more than two miles from their birthplace. Gray squirrels are not territorial, but may defend the immediate area around a nest site.
Red squirrels are active during the daytime, but may rest up during intense midday heat. In severe winter weather, they may remain inactive in their nests. Juveniles establish home ranges on or adjacent to that of their mother. They are territorial and defend their areas against other red squirrels.
Gray squirrels are responsible for more problems than are red squirrels, especially in urban or suburban areas. However, red squirrels will sometimes chew maple syrup lines. Squirrel damage to home vegetable or flower gardens, or to orchards, is often difficult to control. When populations are high, and food sources are abundant, new squirrels will quickly replace any that are removed. To avoid or reduce damage and make your property less attractive to squirrels, consider these options:
- Plantings: Electrified netting or other small electric fences may be useful in keeping squirrels out of gardens and small orchards. Contact your local farm supply business or a MassWildlife District office for information on electric fences. A small dome or cage of chicken wire placed over individual plants or small rows can protect individual plants until they are large enough to be ignored by the squirrels.
- Buildings: Gray squirrels will enter attics, crawl spaces, or sheds for nesting or shelter. In doing so, they may damage the structure, pull apart insulation, or chew electrical wires. Inspect your property regularly to be sure that squirrels have not entered, or attempted entry. Close openings with heavy-gauge ½-inch wire mesh or other appropriate carpentry repairs. Do not block squirrels inside as they may do considerable damage when trying to get out. Trim branches and trees within 6-8 feet of the building, to prevent squirrels from jumping on your roof. Prevent squirrels from walking on wires by installing 2-foot sections of 2-3 inch plastic pipe over the wire. The piping will rotate on the wire, causing the squirrels to fall off. Do not place pipes on utility wires without permission from the utility company.
- Bird Feeders: Bird feeders which hang from wires may be protected with rotating piping (see above). Feeders on poles may be protected with commercial conical squirrel guards which prevent a climbing squirrel from getting past the cone. Remember that spilled seed attracts mice and squirrels to the ground below the feeder. Predators may then be attracted to the rodents. Carefully consider the pros and cons of feeding birds, especially at seasons when they do not need supplemental food.
- Repellents: Mothballs may sometimes discourage squirrels from using crawl spaces or other enclosed spaces. Do not use mothballs in human-occupied dwellings. Ro-pel® taste repellent can be applied to seeds, bulbs, flowers, shrubs, fences, and siding to discourage squirrels. Consult with your local agriculture extension specialist and follow all instructions. Effectiveness may vary. Do not use anticoagulants containing warfarin (e.g., D-Con®). These are formulated for and are legal only for use on rats and mice. Squirrels may only be sickened, and dead squirrels may cause secondary poisoning of raptors and other scavengers.
- Trapping: Gray squirrels can often be captured in wooden or wire box traps, about 24 inches in length, and 10 inches in height. Apple slices, peanut butter, or sunflower seeds are good baits. Wire traps are more effective when covered with canvas or other dark material. Remember that wildlife may not be relocated in Massachusetts. Traps may be effective in removing squirrels trapped within an attic or other confined space. The squirrel may then be released outside the structure, providing that you have closed the animals initial entryway.
- Shooting: Shooting is quick, simple, and effective in rural areas where firearms discharge is safe and lawful. A .22 caliber rifle or a shotgun with #6 shot is suitable. This may be most effective when targeting a few persistent animals. During population peaks, or when foods are particularly attractive, new squirrels will replace those which are removed.
Squirrels are an important natural resource in Massachusetts. They are classified as a game species, for which established regulated hunting seasons exist. If you are experiencing problems with, or have questions regarding gray and red squirrels, see the web page information on Problem Animals or contact your nearest MassWildlife District office. Further information on other wildlife is also available.