You see them everywhere, every day. But what do you really know about these furry/furious creatures?
Squirrels. Each of us sees at least one every day in every corner of the GTA. For some, they are a scampering, bushy-tailed source of amusement. For others, they are an attic-invading, flower bulb–chomping nuisance. For still others they are prey. But what do any of us really know about Sciuridae, these comparatively small-breeding members of the rodent family seen in huge numbers in our corner of the world (and who are members of the same family as chipmunks and groundhogs)?
Can urban squirrels really live 20 years, as the City of Toronto website claims? Who do you call when you find one injured? Do trees propagate from squirrel-buried nuts? Why did a squirrel devour the entire waxy portion of an IKEA tea-light in my garden this summer? Are they smart? Rabid? Do they generate as many complaints as raccoons, the city’s other notorious four-legged menace?
We asked four experts to shed light on Toronto’s least known yet (seemingly) most ubiquitous citizens through insider factoids and anecdotes. Our panel:
Just how big are GTA squirrel numbers?
“As long as there is food, shelter, and water, there are squirrels,” says TAS’s Meerburg. Asked whether there is possibly one squirrel per person in the GTA, Meerburg howls but concedes, “I don’t have any stats to support that, sorry. We don’t keep track of the specifics when it comes to wildlife. But squirrels are right up there with raccoons.”
“Their numbers are large,” confirms 30-year pest control veteran Smith. “They are the most common type of wildlife call we get—maybe 20 a week.”
Unlike nocturnal raccoons, diurnal squirrels take attic infestation to a sinister new level.
“They confuse a lot of people because they sleep when you sleep,” says Smith, whose company uses customized rooftop incubators to house baby squirrels they remove from attic nests, giving Mama Squirrel stress-free time to gather up her brood and relocate. “Plus, squirrels need to chew. Their teeth continually grow and it’s pretty unsettling when you can hear them chewing on your wood upstairs.”
Be sure to keep the porch door shut.
“You really don’t want a squirrel running loose in your house,” Meerburg says. “They live up to their name and become squirrely. I’ve seen them climb drywall, hang off of curtains. You’ll end up with no pictures on the walls, no items on the mantel.
“If one gets inside, the best thing to do is open up a door, close all the blinds and leave only one avenue of light leading to the outside. Then very slowly and cautiously, walk behind them—maybe with a broom—and direct them towards the light.”
Hoping to save a few bucks on pest control by DIY trapping? Think again.
“The use of humane traps is still quite pervasive in nuisance situations, including squirrels,” says the Toronto Wildlife Centre’s Karvonen. “But we encourage people to never, ever, ever do it. It seldom solves the problem.
“If squirrels have chewed their way into your attic, there are 25 other animals waiting to take its place. You need to deal with the attic and areas of structural weakness. The other thing is: if a squirrel is living in your shed or attic, it’s almost always a mother with babies. That’s a common cause of orphaning—if the mother is trapped and taken away somewhere. Squirrels are almost always single-parent families.”
So what about squirrel dudes?
“They’re a little more rogue and easygoing,” Smith says. “We mostly encounter females and their babies.”
Females can have—gasp!—two litters a year, in spring and fall.
“But they don’t always,” says Campbell, a veterinary pathologist who researches squirrel disease and death. “Like many animals, it would depend on the health of the female and the availability of food. And the litters are usually small, about three, so on the rodent scale, they’re not prolific reproducers.”
Still, as Karvonen notes, squirrels begin leading largely adult lives at about 14 weeks. She should know: Toronto Wildlife Centre, which receives some 30,000 calls annually, has handled thousands of orphaned and injured squirrels since its 1993 inception. “We work with over 270 species.” Karvonen says. “Certainly, at certain times of the year it feels like it’s all about squirrels.”
They live fast…
Though the City’s website says squirrels “have been known to live up to 20 years in an urban setting,” TAS’s Meerburg doubts it. “With all the hazards we have here—vehicular, as well as the stray-cat population—I think it’s hard for a squirrel to live a long time. They don’t know how to cross the road at all. And they fall off of things.”
Adds Campbell: “High mortality is common across many species. Of those that survive, six years would be a pretty long lifespan from what I’ve read.”
…and die hard.
“We get squirrels that have been shot [by pellet guns] or are sick with mange,” Karvonen says, adding that orphans are common, and also citing car accidents and fatal falls among squirrel moms. “We get calls about dogs catching squirrel after squirrel, shaking them and killing them. There are some very proficient hunters in the dog world. Cats can be a problem for baby squirrels.”
Campbell says squirrels are also susceptible to infectious disease from contact with cat and raccoon feces.
Wild yes, rabid no.
Though squirrels are warm-blooded and can contract rabies, Campbell notes, “They’d have to be bitten by a rabid animal and survive it. In Ontario, we have almost eliminated terrestrial rabies. There are bat strains but they seldom cross over.”
Speaking of bats…
They are the only creatures giving squirrels a run for their money when it comes to tenacious household infestation, Smith says. “Squirrels are evil. They don’t like getting pushed out. And we find that red squirrels tend to be more aggressive than the grays or the blacks. They’re small and suffering from Little Red Squirrel Syndrome,” he laughs, stressing that ICE Inc. has a no-kill policy. “Anytime humans get involved in dealing with animal numbers, we mess it up.”
They are de facto landscapers.
“Squirrels are among the most proficient tree-planters out there,” says Karvonen, a point acknowledged by the City on its website. Blue Jays, too, apparently, Karvonen says. “They bury lots of nuts and then just forget about them. That’s an important reminder for people: wildlife are an integral part of ecosystems and our environment.” The City’s Meerburg can’t speculate on the number of trees resulting from squirrel plantings, however.
There is such a thing as vigilante squirrels, apparently.
“I had a client recently who evicted a squirrel that came back and pretty much destroyed his brand new cedar deck. It was nasty,” Smith chuckles nervously. Think about that the next time you’re sprinkling cayenne pepper over your freshly planted spring bulbs. Shudder…
Yet even men of science think they’re kind of cool.
“I am constantly impressed by their athleticism,” says Campbell. “Watching them walk across a hydro wire or the way they can get out on a very thin branch and leap from one tree to another… it’s incredible. A squirrel-cam would be really interesting.”
“Plus, they are always so busy,” adds Karvonen. “As with most herbivores, they are always on the lookout for food and for predators, so they can’t ever really relax.”
Alas, the answer to why Sesqui ate the IKEA tea-light in my garden remains a vexing mystery. “Texture maybe,” posits Campbell. “It’s hard to believe it’s nutritional.”
One thing that is clear: love them or hate them, squirrels are here to stay in all their messy, chewy, squawking, nest-building abundance. Live and let live. And please keep the cat indoors.
Have you had squirrels in your house? What did they do? What did you do? Share your experiences in the comments section below.