It’s fun to watch our furry friends in the backyard! Just like us, squirrels will gobble up junk food if it’s offered in abundance. And just like us, a diet deficient in healthy nutrients can result in long term health problems in squirrels.
Squirrels need a proper mineral balance in order to prevent the disease called “metabolic bone disease” or “MBD”. MBD is a terribly debilitating disorder, where the squirrel’s bones become weak with time. In the past several years, rehabbers have become familiar with this disorder as more of us have seen and documented this in our wild patients. It was hard for me to break the habit of putting buckets of sunflower seeds and peanuts out for the squirrels. They do like them, and they are inexpensive. However, sunflower seeds are very deficient in the important mineral ratio squirrels need. Some are OK, but not a steady diet of them. Raw peanuts are particularly unsafe as they contain a mold that is toxic to squirrels.
Roasted peanuts are safer, but are deficient in the proper calcium to phosphorus ratio that squirrels need to maintain bone health throughout their lives. Besides, peanuts aren’t nuts…they’re legumes and don’t provide much nutrition. Squirrels get good nutrition from a balance of natural foods they eat, such as bark, fungi, leaves, some fruit, corn, seeds, and nuts. Supplementing this natural food is fine, but try to add some nuts and “squirrel cookies” to their picnic table…more on those later.
Squirrels gnaw on animal bones and deer antlers for calcium in the wild.
We’ve had several healthy litters of squirrels in our yard and the resident momma always likes to gnaw on her bone for the extra calcium it provides. She carries it around with her frequently during baby season. This is a picture of “Momma” and her big bone we got at the pet store. We had to be careful walking under her though, when she had that thing up in the tree! Look out below…
”I’ll get ya NEXT time…muahahahahaaaaa!!!”
Squirrels drink a lot of water, especially during pregnancy, lactation, and warm weather. A good clean source of water is very important. In the winter, we provide a heated birdbath for all the backyard visitors.
One shrub that is often overlooked in this area is the common hazelnut. Here in
Wisconsin, wild hazelnuts grow fast and produce nuts within about 6 years or so.
Ours arrived as little pathetic looking bare root twigs a few years ago, and are
now beautiful and laden with clusters of tiny wild hazelnuts in the fall (which
disappear as soon as they are ripe of course!).
Hazelnuts are easy to grow, and provide beautiful color in the autumn as well. They’re nice looking landscape shrubs that grow to about the size of a mature lilac bush. We have 5 hazelnut shrubs in our backyard, and have started more. They provide good cover and food for some species of birds, and other wildlife as well. Oak, linden, pine, hickory, and maple trees are also good bets. Planning your landscape to provide food and places for birds, squirrels, and other wildlife to raise their young is best. If neighbors spray pesticides and other lawn chemicals, plant your food providing shrubs away from the property boundary.
Be considerate of neighbors. If they don’t like squirrels, it’s best not to
encourage them by putting out tons of food near the property line. You don’t
want people hassling or causing harm to the little furry tailed partygoers. Some
people get upset about squirrels raiding their birdfeeders. You can politely
inform them that squirrels are nature’s little “security alarm” for the birds.
If a predator is stalking (such as a cat or hawk), you will hear nearby
squirrels warning the birds by “quacking and chucking” and flicking their tails.
Squirrels are also great lawn aerators. This means you don’t have to put on those silly shoes with the spikes on and walk all over your yard to poke holes in it when spring comes around. We have lots of squirrels in our yard, and by the time the grass is growing well in spring, no unsightly holes. We also have 3 oak trees off to a good start. We didn’t plant them. Thanks to our bushy tailed landscapers! It’s not a myth…they really do leave behind some of those acorns - and they do sprout and grow into trees. And it’s free!
Native nuts are great. In Wisconsin, this means unsalted walnuts, hickory nuts and hazelnuts (filberts). You can ask people(who consider acorns and other tree nuts as “litter” and rake them up for the garbage) to give them to you instead. Offer to rake some up for them…such a deal! I usually ask people to give me black walnuts and hickory nuts that they would otherwise discard. Maybe you can convince them to leave some for the squirrels in their yard as well.
Occasionally a cooked soup bone gets tied up in a tree as well. I’ve also used the sterile bones you can buy for pet rodents at the pet store. They last a long time. They like to gnaw on them for the minerals and also to keep their teeth filed down.
Another thing you can do is make “squirrel cookies”. They’re filling for the
squirrels, so they don’t eat as much of your birdseed. More importantly though,
they are more nutritious than bags of sunflower seed, peanuts, and corn. (Some
of those things are OK as a treat, but avoid feeding it as their main diet).
The main ingredient in the squirrel cooky/nut ball recipe is called “rodent chow”. It is sold at pet stores for feeding pet mice and rats. Rodent chow is sold as small cubes in a bag (sometimes in bulk) and is inexpensive.
First take some of the rodent chow, and crush it up into a powder or tiny
chunks. You can use a hammer or coffee grinder to do this. (If you use a coffee
grinder, pound it up with a hammer first, or else the grinder might not
(Note that I don’t follow any specific proportions)
Squirrels won’t eat it if it’s mushy.
You can get creative with the recipe…sometimes I roll up the “dough” in small balls with a nut inside before freezing it, or put some on a twig or craft stick, and freeze for a “squirrel pop”. Good project on a winter afternoon. Just be sure to label the container well, or the unsuspecting human “nosher” might just pop one in his mouth by accident. I’ve heard that they don’t taste as good as they smell.