I spend a LOT of time watching the squirrels in my backyard and it seems like I always end up with a question or two about the creatures. For example, if the squirrel living in my tree didn’t have to worry about being chased by my dogs or eaten by a hawk, had plenty of food and shelter…how long would it live? Then, if you flip that around, what about squirrels that aren’t living in a lush urban environment? How do they fare in the wild?
The basic question I was tossing around was, “How long do squirrels live?”
I decided to do some research on the average lifespan of a squirrel, and while there’s a significant amount of variation in the answers, squirrels can live longer than most other rodents if everything works out well for them. Here is what I found out.
The Lifespan of a Squirrel – Wild vs. Captivity
The lifespan of a squirrel can vary between species. Most squirrels may not live beyond their first year as they are more vulnerable to attacks from predators. Squirrels that manage to survive the first two years of their life have an average lifespan of six to twelve years in the wild.
Life Expectancy of Squirrels Across Species
Different species of squirrels generally have different life spans. A brief look at the life expectancy of species found in the United States reveals the following:
Red squirrels can live up to 5 years in the wild. Their mortality rate is quite high and only 25 percent of these squirrels live longer than a year. They mature at 2 to 4 years old. The longest recorded lifespan of a red squirrel in the wild has been 10 years. The male squirrels tend to live longer than female ones. For most squirrel species, it is the opposite.
In captivity, red squirrels can live up to 8 years.
Eastern fox squirrels have an average lifespan of 8 to 18 years in the wild. Most squirrels die before maturity. Female squirrels have been known to live up to 13 years of age, on average, whereas male squirrels are known to live for 8 years, on average.
In captivity, fox squirrels have lived up to 18 years. This is quite long compared to other animals.
Southern flying squirrels live up to three to five years in the wild. Compared to their non-flying relatives, southern flying squirrels have a shorter lifespan in the wild. They They tend to live longer in captivity and have an average lifespan of 10 years.
Their maximum age in captivity has been recorded to be 19 years.
Eastern grey squirrels live up to 12 years in the wild. Their lifespan increases in captivity and their maximum age has been recorded to be 20 years.
Black squirrels are actually fox or eastern grey squirrels. Their hair color varies due to different levels of melanin in their body. They are not very common in the United States, but may be found in the Midwest. Most black squirrels can live up to 6 years in the wild.
Like other squirrels, their life span increases in captivity and they can live up to 18 years.
Ground squirrels like the Richardson ground squirrel have short life spans of 2-4 years in the wild. Most males only live two years while the females sometimes live for four years in the wild. Similar lifespans have been reported for California ground squirrels.
The longest lifespan of a Richardson ground squirrel in captivity is 7 years.
How Do Squirrels Live So Long?
Squirrels may not live as humans do, but they do live a lot longer compared to other rodents. For the most part, the life span of an animal depends upon the level of predation. Squirrels are lucky in this regard. They have quick reflexes, excellent eyesight, and are very good climbers and jumpers. This helps them escape predator attacks. Baby squirrels are the most vulnerable since they cannot defend themselves as well as the adults can.
Check out this video of a squirrel escaping a hawk attack:
Squirrels are likely to live even longer in captivity. This is because they don’t get exposed to disease as often, have a reliable supply of food, are protected from predators, and have fewer fights over matters of territory and mating.
Factors that Impact a Squirrel’s Life Span
There are several events that can impact a squirrel’s life expectancy. These are mainly predators, disease, parasites, vision loss and tooth loss.
Common Diseases and Parasites
Squirrels are often infected by viral diseases such as squirrel pox. It spreads through insect bites and causes tumors to appear on their body. Squirrel diseases are complex as European red squirrels can die because of squirrel pox, but grey squirrels are immune. In red squirrels, the virus can cause lesions, skin ulcers, and scabs. The lesions and scabs may also swell and discharge liquid. Squirrels infected by this virus will become extremely lethargic and will eventually die.
Squirrels can become host to a series of parasites as well. Ground squirrels, for instance, may become a victim of the flesh fly Neobellieria citellivora. Adult flesh flies can lay live larvae on the body of a ground squirrel. The larva causes lethal myiasis in the squirrel. This means that the larvae settle down inside the skin of a squirrel and feed on its tissues. Infestation can last for 5 to 6 days, after which the ground squirrel dies.
Squirrels are also infected by fleas and ticks, but this does not prove to be fatal for them. Other parasites that can infect a squirrel include single-celled coccidia. They are found inside a squirrel’s digestive tract. Parasites like trypanosomes can be found in their bloodstream, spinal fluid, and lymph. Squirrels are also susceptible to flatworms and nematodes.
Tooth loss can be very serious for squirrels. A squirrel’s incisors tend to grow throughout their life and it’s important that they keep long and sharp in order to consume food. A broken tooth or tooth loss can result in death due to starvation. Squirrels with broken teeth need treatment in order to survive. Without this, the tooth will not grow back normally. It will also grow at a slow rate, thereby compromising the squirrel’s life.
Squirrels can also suffer from a condition called Malocclusion, which causes improper alignment of their incisors. Malocclusion requires medical treatment and if a squirrel is unable to get it, then it will die. This can be due to starvation or because the teeth end up penetrating through the skull or jaw of the squirrel.
If you find a squirrel with a broken, misshapen tooth, then try and get in touch with a wildlife rehabilitator. If you don’t, the squirrel is very likely to die.
Loss of Vision
As squirrels get older they sometimes start to lose their vision due to the formation of cataracts or as the result of eye infections. Healthy squirrels have excellent vision and depend upon their eyesight to spot predators. While a blind or vision impaired squirrel can still successfully forage for food it becomes incredibly vulnerable to predators.
Like all other animals, the most obvious threat to a squirrel’s life is a predator attack. Owls and hawks are their most prominent predators. Animals like weasels, foxes, and skunks will also prey on squirrels. Rattlesnakes and black snakes are among their predators as well, but these tend to target baby squirrels instead of adult ones.
Here’s a rare instance of a squirrel getting attacked by a seagull:
Here’s another video of a baby squirrel getting ambushed by crows:
Squirrels in Urban Areas
Grey squirrels fare quite well in urban areas. Where most wild animals may not be able to survive in the midst of man-made developments, grey squirrels can adapt very well to such environments. They are less exposed to typical predator attacks in urban areas as well and do not need to forage too much for food. As a result, they can live longer in these areas than they would in the wild.
Check out this video of a squirrel in ninja-mode:
Here’s another squirrel making its way through an assault course:
To Sum It Up
There are several things that determine the lifespan of a squirrel. They are hardy creatures and unless they get attacked by a predator or become infected by a fatal disease, they tend to outlive their rodent counterparts.
If you want to help the squirrels in your yard live longer then a simple step would be to put up a nesting box or two so they will always have someplace to come in out of the cold. Heck, you could even put up one of our awesome squirrel feeders to make sure they always had something tasty to eat as well!