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.
Squirrels Love Tree Nuts
One of the primary food sources for squirrels are the tree nuts found in their natural habitats.
Grey and Fox squirrels love to eat nuts from oak, walnut, hickory, and pecan trees.
- Hickory nuts
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!
Squirrels Eat Tree and Flower Buds in the Spring
In the Spring squirrels will feast on the tender, nutrient dense budding flowers and fresh green shoots from their favorite trees and shrubs. At times they will even eat the bark from some trees.
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.
Squirrels Munch on Vegetables
Squirrels appreciate a healthy diet and all sorts of vegetables are on the menu! Some of the most common vegetables they consume are:
- Pumpkin and pumpkin seeds
It can be really hard to keep squirrels out of vegetable gardens and many people resort to trapping.
Surprisingly, Squirrels Eat 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 they 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 are Tasty Squirrel Treats
Insects are eaten in the summer and are probably especially important for juveniles. (source).
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.
- Small bugs as available
Yes, Squirrels Eat 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.”
Squirrels Eat Meat
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
Squirrels Love Fruits
Squirrels are extremely fond of fleshy fruits like apples and peaches. Depending upon the region and fruit, orchard owners will often report losing up to 20% of their harvest to squirrels and birds.
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.
Other fruits that squirrels enjoy which are found in their natural habitats include:
- Wild strawberries
You can also head over to YouTube, do a search for “Drunk Squirrel” and find plenty of videos featuring squirrels that have consumed a little too much of the following fermented fruits:
What Foods are Dangerous for Squirrels?
Just like dogs, squirrels cannot process theobromine, a compound found in chocolate. Ingesting chocolate can lead to severe health problems, including heart issues, seizures, and in some cases, death. It’s crucial to keep all forms of chocolate out of a squirrel’s reach.
Processed foods, including fast food and junk food, are not suitable for squirrels. These foods often contain high levels of salt, sugar, and preservatives, which can harm a squirrel’s health over time, leading to obesity, heart disease, and other health issues.
Onions and Garlic
Onions and garlic contain a substance called thiosulphate, which is toxic to squirrels. Consumption of these can lead to digestive issues and may even damage red blood cells, causing anemia.
While healthy for humans, avocados are toxic to squirrels. The pit, skin, and leaves of the avocado plant contain persin, a fungicidal toxin, which can cause breathing difficulties, heart problems, and death in squirrels.
Alcohol and Caffeine
Never offer alcohol or caffeinated drinks to squirrels. Both substances can cause serious health issues, including heart palpitations, tremors, and potentially fatal metabolic changes.
Squirrels are lactose intolerant, which means they cannot digest lactose found in dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt. These foods can cause stomach upset, diarrhea, and other digestive issues.
Sugary foods such as candies, cookies, or soda can lead to obesity, dental issues, and diabetes in squirrels. Stick to natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables instead.
Squirrels Eating From Bird Feeders
If you have been feeding birds for longer than a few days then you already know that squirrels love to eat sunflower seeds. Trying to keep squirrels out bird feeders is a billion dollar industry.
One of the best ways I have found to deter squirrels is to fill my feeders with safflower seeds which is one of the few foods that squirrels do not like to eat.
I have found safflower seeds to be readily accepted and enjoyed by the songbirds in my yard and the squirrels are completely uninterested in raiding the feeders.
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.
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!