Eastern gray squirrels do not hibernate and many of us see them daily during the months of winter, except during storms or intense cold.
They are commonly encountered in forests, natural or planted, in small towns with mature trees, and in the urban forests of bigger cities in the southern part of Minnesota.
Being close to 18 inches in length, including the bushy tail, they are usually gray in color. Black (melanistic) or even white (albino) phases are common.
A good share of these animals put together snug leafy nests that we see quite high up in larger trees. The nests are ragged balls of twigs and leaves about 2 feet in diameter but are water-repellent and have inconspicuous side entrances. Tree hollows make great homes and can become dens that shelter a group of six or seven.
Acorns, hickory nuts, black walnuts, butternuts, and maple seeds supply much of the gray squirrels diet from late summer to the following spring. A single critter will consume almost two pounds of food per week. They also are fond of gnawing on bones and shed antlers. Bark, buds and twigs can often keep squirrels alive when food stores run out in winter or early spring.
They usually have home ranges of about 2 acres, but some shift their homes as different foods attract them and for this reason, squirrels that raid gardens or for some other reason are a nuisance and are live trapped, should be moved at least five miles. Don’t move squirrels to new areas in the winter; they need their shelters and food sources to survive.
In August and through autumn, gray squirrels store acorns, walnuts and other nuts singly in small holes dug in the ground. A hole a little more than an inch deep is dug and then the nut is covered with soil and leaves. They might also cache food in hollow trunks or fallen trees.
Because they only remember where their food is stored for about 20 minutes, a lot of food is found by odor alone. Yes, they have a great sense of smell, but in this way food storage benefits the local squirrel population rather than any one digger. Not all acorns and other cached seeds are found, so squirrels become helpful agents in spreading the forests on which they depend for their food and shelter.
Jim Gilbert’s observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.