Squirrel appreciation day? Really? Who would have guessed? Landing as it does every year on January 21, this unofficial holiday started by a wildlife rehabilitator in the United States couldn’t have come at a better time for me. One of my New Year resolutions as a master gardener was to improve at answering gardeners’ questions about this bushy-tailed rodent.
Every year, I give a fair number of garden talks. Invariably, no matter the topic – butterflies, bees, lavender, winter gardens or gardens for seniors – whenever question period rolls around, the subject quickly turns to squirrels. My hackles rise. I try not to get defensive. Most gardeners I’ve met over the years really love tulips, tomatoes and sunflowers. They also love sparrows, chickadees and cardinals. But they most definitely do not love squirrels. Some go so far as to declare their garden a war zone.
So on the subject of squirrels, sensitivity needs be foremost in chats with audiences … or my neighbors. People take sides or go on rants, arguing their anti-squirrel bias with passion. Needless to say, squirrels are a hot topic. While some resort to cayenne pepper sprinkled liberally about the garden or the trap-and-release method of relocating them after waking up to yet another decapitated tulip, others rely on more benign ways to save their flowers and vegetables. My approach, as a wildlife gardener, is to sit back, relax and enjoy their squirrelly antics and masterful acrobatics. Indeed, I have decided to officially declare that I like squirrels. There, I’ve said it. Let the nut throwing begin!
I like them because they are resourceful, playful and they make me laugh, especially in the depths of winter when the garden stands frozen in stillness. Unlike many mammals, most squirrels tend not to hibernate. On any winter’s day, they are leaping across limbs, hanging upside down and scurrying down tree trunks. Now, I should point out that like a nice glass of holiday bubbly, I like squirrels in moderation. I would not, for example, appreciate you releasing a scurry (the name of a group of squirrels) in my front yard.
Squirrels also have an important role to play in nature, storing nuts that sometimes grow into trees in the forest. As a gardener, I search for ways to coexist with them while planting and growing a beautiful garden for wildlife and human guests to enjoy year-round. They also keep me humble, especially with garden design, given their proclivity to move things around. It has taken nearly three decades but here are some ways that I’ve found to live in harmony and to appreciate squirrels.
1. Share the Bounty
Squirrels get hungry, too. It’s one of the reasons they’re always trying to gnaw through birdfeeders to steal seeds. On average, a squirrel eats about a pound of food a week. Beyond peanuts and sunflower seeds, planting pines, oaks, hickories and berries provides natural food sources. One year, I decided to leave some food at ground level for them away from the birdfeeders. It worked so well as a distractor that now I do it year-round. It keeps them from munching on my young perennials in spring.
2. Outwit Them
Just as my dinner guests have food allergies and intolerances, squirrels do, too. What if squirrels like to eat tulip bulbs just after they’ve been planted? Plant daffodils, allium or fritillaries instead. Squirrels, with their strong sense of smell, avoid these bulbs, some of which are toxic to them. Be smarter still and plant a few tulip bulbs surrounded by daffodils. Make sure to pick up any bulb debris, though. I also tend to wait until later in the fall to plant and I plant deep to reduce the chances of squirrels digging them up.
3. Use Scent to Detract Them
I confess the eastern grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) that frequent my northern back yard (and which are actually black) have chowed down on a few of my tulip bulbs and crocuses, too. Then one of our more experienced master gardeners suggested using chicken manure that comes neatly boxed in pellet form. Turns out squirrels don’t like the smell, even though it has no odor to me. They also don’t like the smell of blood meal or coyote urine. Having no coyote urine, my dog also does a good job of marking his territory to keep the squirrels at bay.
4. Create Barriers
Without wanting to become political, sometimes a wall is necessary. So are barriers. As the poet Robert Frost wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Strategically placed chicken wire or a cover can often prevent squirrel damage in the vegetable patch. A baffle mounted on a post far away from any potential launching pad can usually stop squirrels from climbing into the bird feeder on top. A metal cage around a bird feeder will further limit potential feeding raids. Covering newly planted tulip bulbs with chicken wire through which the shoots can grow, or covering them with boards removed before the bulbs start to grow, works well too.
5. Keep Them Busy
Last summer, I bought a corncob feeder that’s like a bungee jump with dried corn attached designed to keep the squirrels busy and at bay. Most certainly, it did. Over the summer, I watched the squirrels bouncing up and down while snacking. I should add that these antics also kept my three-year-old granddaughter amused one summer’s afternoon, distracting her from running over plants.
6. Provide Water
I think it’s endearing to see a squirrel drink from one of several ground-level water basins that I refill every morning to avoid the water becoming stagnant or attracting mosquitoes. Like other wildlife, squirrels need water too. It’s not so cute, however, to see a squirrel nipping a new plant stem to get moisture during a heatwave. So, my rule of garden etiquette is that I do something nice for the squirrels and they do something nice for me – such as leaving my plants alone.
7. Let Nature Take its Course
Over the years, my back yard attracted several grey squirrels. Then one winter’s day, I noticed that a new squirrel family had moved into one of the birdhouses. Before long, in early spring, three young red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) were poking their heads out to explore the world. Squirrels have a few enemies, apart from humans. Owls, foxes, coyotes and cats – including the big black one that roams the neighborhood – are all natural predators. By fall, only one feisty, territorial red squirrel remained. The other squirrels had either disappeared or had been chased away.
8. Keep Smiling
When a friend despaired watching the squirrels chew off young branches last summer, probably to build a large nest (called a drey), I encouraged her to keep smiling. Those same squirrels, being omnivores in nature, might eat harmful insects, too. Besides, it could be worse. At least they were regular old North American squirrels, not Indian giant squirrels (Ratufa indica), which can grow a metre (over three feet) in length. They also were keeping her son’s dog exercised and provided a good conversation starter for new neighbors. “I like squirrels”, I mumbled. Really, I do. So now, I’m curious. Is there a skunk appreciation day, too?
Julianne Labreche is a freelance writer and garden enthusiast who volunteers as a Master Gardener in Ottawa-Carleton.