Like other small mammals, squirrels are also susceptible to attacks from a wide variety of predators. These predators vary according to the types of squirrels. Different species of squirrels have evolved to adopt various defense mechanisms against predators, but they still tend to make vulnerable targets. This is also why squirrels live longer in captivity than they do in the wild.
Have you ever wondered, “What Eats Squirrels?” I did and this is what I found!
Predators that eat squirrels into four main categories:
- Aerial Predators (Hawks, Eagles, Harriers, etc)
- Mammalian Predators (Foxes, Coyotes, Weasels, etc)
- Reptilian Predators (Rattlesnakes, Bull snakes, etc)
- Parasites (Flesh Flys)
Let’s look at each one in more detail.
Hawks and Eagles Eat Squirrels
Almost all kinds of squirrels are eaten by an aerial predator. Eastern gray squirrels are prone to attacks by red-tailed hawks (source). Fox squirrels are also vulnerable to attacks from hawks and sometimes owls. In the case of red squirrels, they are preyed upon by Cooper’s hawks, bald eagles, northern goshawks, great horned owls, great grey owls, American kestrels, northern harriers, red-shouldered hawks, red-tailed hawks, and sharp-shinned hawks.
California ground squirrels are mostly targeted by red-tailed hawks and golden eagles. Franklin’s ground squirrels are also eaten by red-tailed hawks. In the case of flying squirrels, southern and northern flying squirrels are targeted by owls and hawks.
Rock squirrels are eaten by golden eagles and arctic ground squirrels are eaten by northern goshawks, Harlan’s hawks, red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, common ravens, snow owls, long-tailed jaegers, short-eared owls, golden eagles, northern harriers, gyrfalcons, peregrine falcons, and rough-legged hawks.
Here’s a video of a squirrel getting attacked by two red-tailed hawks:
Mammals That Eat Squirrels
Mammals form a significant portion of the predators that eat squirrels.
Arctic ground squirrels, for instance, are susceptible to attacks from coyotes, red foxes, arctic foxes, wolves, grizzly bears, lynxes, wolverines, and ermines (source).
The Eastern grey squirrel is eaten by weasels, bobcats, grey wolves, red foxes, coyotes, and Canadian lynxes. Red squirrels tend to be targeted by fishers, minks, weasels, canids, felids, red foxes, lynxes, American martens, and humans.
The California ground squirrel is preyed upon by American badgers, coyotes, weasels, bobcats, mountain lions, and domestic cats and dogs. Franklin’s ground squirrels also get eaten by mammals such as red foxes, badgers, coyotes, skunks, weasels, and minks.
Flying squirrels are usually able to protect themselves from predation as they are only active during the night. However, they can be eaten by bobcats, raccoons, domestic cats, and weasels. In the case of northern flying squirrels, they are also targeted by coyotes and American martens.
Rock squirrels are also eaten by animals such as bobcats, raccoons, gray foxes, coyotes, American badgers, ringtails, and domestic cats and dogs.
Most squirrels are able to protect themselves from mammalian predators by emitting alarm calls and warning their fellow squirrels. Ground squirrels will retreat to their burrows when they encounter a mammalian predator, whereas tree squirrels rely on their speed and agility to escape these predators.
Do Snakes Eat Squirrels?
Among reptiles, snakes are the main kind of predators that eat squirrels. Young fox squirrels are often eaten by snakes. Red squirrels are targeted by timber rattlesnakes and rock squirrels are eaten by western rattlesnakes and bull snakes.
In the case of California ground squirrels, the infants are more prone to an attack from a rattlesnake. This is because adult ground squirrels carry an antidote in their blood that makes them immune to rattlesnake venom. Baby ground squirrels do not carry this antidote in their blood and make easy targets for rattlesnakes.
Parasites Kill Squirrels
Squirrels are also susceptible to attacks from parasites. The Richardson’s ground squirrel, for instance, can die if an adult flesh fly lays maggots on the back of the squirrel (source). These maggots burrow themselves under the skin of the Richardson’s ground squirrel and feed on its tissue. This process is called lethal myiasis and the squirrel dies after five or six days following the infestation.
Cannibalism in Squirrels
Squirrels are known as cannibals as well. So besides aerial, mammalian, reptilian, and parasitic predators, they are also prone to attacks from each other.
Cannibalism in squirrels tends to vary across species. In some cases, the intent is to simply kill the squirrel but not to eat it. For instance, research on North American red squirrels noted that male red squirrels have a tendency of killing infants (source). It was also noted that these infants were not the fathered by the male squirrels that carried out the attack.
These attacks were not in response to a shortage of food. Instead, male red squirrels were observed to carry out these fatal attacks during the years when more food was available. This is because, during such years, female red squirrels are likely to reproduce twice.
When the first round of breeding happens, female red squirrels will mate with more than one male. As a result, the male squirrel cannot know if he is the father of the infants born after the breeding cycle. The male squirrel then kills these baby squirrels so that the female squirrel can stop lactating and be in the condition to reproduce again.
In other cases, cannibalism was noted in the Arctic ground squirrel and the white-tailed Prairie dog. The white-tailed prairie dog targets the newborns of Wyoming ground squirrel when there is a shortage of food (source). This is because both these species of squirrels have a similar diet.
After breeding season is over, if the infant prairie dogs do not get sufficient access to food, then their parents will kill the competition and ensure healthy food supply. Cannibalism in the Arctic ground squirrel usually results because of disputes over territories, food, and female squirrels (source). It was noted that these squirrels become particularly aggressive during periods of food scarcity and cannibalism is one of the solutions.
What is the Biggest Predator of Squirrels?
So now that we have looked at the different types of predators squirrels have to deal with the question becomes which animal poses the biggest threat.
It turns out that the answer to this question changes as a squirrel ages.
- Baby squirrels often fall prey to racoons and snakes that catch them while they are still small and in the nest. This is a case of opportunistic predators eating an easy meal.
- Adult squirrels are more concerned with ground predators like foxes and aerial predators like hawks. This is a case of hunting predators hunting and catching prey.
- The more a squirrel ages the more likely it is to suffer from parasitic infections.
It seems like no matter how old a squirrel is there is always another animal try to eat it for dinner!
Squirrel Predators: Dogs and Cats
Dogs and cats are an interesting class of squirrel predators.
My dogs have not caught any squirrels despite great effort but my cat has killed a literal pile of flying squirrels. Predation by household pets is believed to be a significant cause of death in squirrels that live in urban environments (source).
The twist however is that, in general, dogs and cats will kill squirrels but do not eat them.
Indeed, when my cat was killing a nest of flying squirrels she would proudly bring a dead one to the kitchen, drop it on the floor and walk away.
Similarly, many dogs, especially terriers, treat squirrels like they would a rat. They will catch and kill a squirrel and then move on to look for another. These dogs were bred to eliminate rodents but not eat them.
Squirrels Are Prey Animals
There are several kinds of predators that eat squirrels. Among aerial predators, the red-tailed hawk appears to be the most common bird that targets squirrels. Weasels, coyotes, badgers, foxes, and bobcats are some of the most common mammalian predators for squirrels. In the case of reptiles, the rattlesnake will frequently target baby squirrels as they are more vulnerable and cannot protect themselves.
Finally, squirrels will often kill each other as well due to food shortage or breeding disputes.
It’s tough being a squirrel.