The dietary habits of squirrels is fascinating! What and how these animals eat is essential for the development of healthy forests and varies throughout the year. There are even a couple of food items that they require which will really surprise you!
Have you ever wondered, “What do squirrels eat?”
Squirrels are opportunistic omnivores that primarily eat nuts (acorns, hickory, pecan), tree buds, grains, grasses and fungi. Squirrels will also eat protein sources such as bird eggs, insects and small reptiles. The exact diet of a squirrel is dependent upon both the species in question along with geographical location.
Let’s take a closer look at how the diet of a squirrel varies between different species and throughout the year.
Squirrels Are Omnivores
Squirrels are opportunistic eaters and their diets will vary based upon what food sources are available. Some of the most common food sources for these animals are given below.
One of the primary food sources for squirrels is tree nuts.
Grey and Fox squirrels love to eat nuts from oak, walnut, hickory, and pecan trees.
Red Squirrels subsist primarily upon the nuts found within pine cones. The heavy reliance upon this particular food source is why these animals are often referred to as “Pine Squirrels”.
Tree nuts are a significant portion of a squirrels diet but they are not available all year long.
While squirrels will create large caches of nuts when they are plentiful in the fall, these resources are usually completely consumed during winter and requires the animals to rely upon other food sources in the Spring and Summer.
Sometimes a squirrel will forget where they left a cache of nuts and some of these will sprout in the Spring and help the forest remain healthy!
Tree and Flower Buds
In the Spring squirrels will feast on the tender, nutrient dense budding flowers and fresh green shoots from their favorite trees and shrubs.
Some common tree buds that they enjoy include:
- Wild Cherry
If you are an avid gardener then you have probably watched your precious tulips being munched upon (or even dug up!) by squirrels looking for a Springtime meal.
Fungus and Lichen
I love eating mushrooms and so do squirrels!
While all squirrels eat mushrooms they are a primary part of the diet for flying squirrels and are heavily relied upon by pine squirrels.
Like so many things in nature, there is a special relationship between flying squirrels, the fungus that love and the health of the forest.
,The fungi eaten by flying squirrels, mycorrhizae, grows near the base of trees and helps promote the health of nitrogen fixing bacteria. The nitrogen fixing bacteria help provide trees with essential nutrients trees that enables healthy growth.
When flying squirrels harvest this fungus they help spread the spores and distribute the fungus throughout the forest.
Insects, Moths and Worms
Insects are eaten in the summer and are probably especially important for juveniles.
Insects are plentiful, easy to catch and are typically high in protein. This combination makes insects an ideal food source for young squirrels who are just starting their way through the world and need plenty of protein for rapid growth.
Birds and Eggs
Squirrels are opportunistic eaters and will chow down on bird eggs or even fledglings if they happen to come across an unprotected nest. The most notorious species for eating birds are the Northern and Southern flying squirrels.
Flying squirrels spend most of their time in trees so they have more opportunity to come across nests.
The National Wildlife Federation states, “Southern flying squirrels are considered one of the most carnivorous squirrels because they supplement their diet with eggs, birds, and carrion.”
The meat eating behavior of squirrels varies significantly between species.
Female Fox and Grey squirrels will eat carrion to provide much needed protein while pregnant and nursing.
Pine squirrels have been reported to actively hunt chipmunks and even northern hare.
Ground squirrels routinely fight snakes that come to eat the young from their burrows. Often the ground squirrels will kill the snake and eat it afterwards
Many owners of fruit trees resort to picking fruits early when they are still not quire ripe just to avoid having the tree ravaged by hungry squirrels.
Two Surprising Foods!
There are two unexpected food categories for these animals and they are both based upon the fact that squirrels are members of the rodent family.
Let’s take a look!
Bones and Antlers
One surprising food item that needs to be addressed is the squirrel’s need for animal bones or antlers.
The defining characteristic of a rodent is the presence of front incisor teeth that never stop growing. Rodents need hard substrates to gnaw upon. The gnawing keeps the incisors sharp and prevents them from becoming overgrown.
An ideal substrate for squirrels to gnaw upon are the bones and antlers of other animals. In addition to keeping their teeth in shape, the bones and antlers provide a rich source of calcium for the animals.
I bet you didn’t see this one coming!
All rodents practice “coprophagy” which involves eating their own feces. Although this probably sounds disgusting, coprophagy is an essential practice.
When rodents eat food some of the essential digestive work that converts the food into absorbable nutrients is performed in the lower intestine. The issue is that while the lower intestine can perform the conversion, it cannot absorb the nutrients.
In order for rodents to benefit from the digestive work performed by the lower intestine they must eat their poop so the nutrients can be absorbed in the upper intestines.
Should You Feed Squirrels Peanuts?
Peanuts are not a natural part of a squirrel’s diet and whether or not you should offer them to your furry friends is a point of debate.
Many wildlife specialists will tell you that peanuts are high in fat and are not healthy for wild animals. Other folks will point out that the leading causes of squirrel mortality are predation, cold and lack of food. I love my squirrels so I don’t mind putting a little extra food out for them, especially during winter months.
Peanuts should not be the primary food source for squirrels so if you do decide to feed them make sure their are other food options available. You could always put up one of our picnic table squirrel feeders and let them eat corn!
Further Reading and Resources
The following wonderful resources were used as reference materials for this article. If you would like to learn more about the dietary preferences of these amazing animals then please explore the links below!