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better place one squirrel at a time

Releasing Wildlife

The Release Process - How we do it

The process described here is how we at Squirrel Refuge release tree squirrels, taking into account their natural history and some things we have learned about squirrels along the way.  It just takes ten easy (or not so easy) steps:

Step 1 - Raise a nutritionally healthy squirrel

We can always tell a squirrel raised at Squirrel Refuge from their wild counterparts.

Why? Because they are typically bigger and have much fluffier tails*.  While that probably

seems counterintuitive, by providing the ideal nutrition, environment, healthcare

and physical conditioning, squirrels reared in captivity don’t have to contend with

many of nature’s little uglies such as food competition, disease and parasites.  If a squirrel

in your care if failing to thrive, consider improving its diet and environment.  Never release

any animal you are not 100% sure is healthy and fit to survive in the wild.

*Squirrels entering rehabilitation very young without the benefit of antibodies and a good start on mother’s milk or those with a sensitivity to formula are often smaller and require more time to archive healthy weight gain as compared to squirrels entering rehabilitation after three to four weeks in the care of their mothers. Obviously mother’s milk is superior to even formulas made specifically for squirrels.

Step 2 - Raise a physically healthy squirrel

At about six weeks, baby squirrels need to have plenty of room to run, learn to jump to and from various sized solid and unstable branches and surfaces, and play rough and tumble with other squirrels.  Squirrels must have at least a few hours a day out of their cage to ensure they are strong enough to endure the physical demands they will be immediately faced with upon release.

Step 3 - Raise to be mentally prepared

As with children leaving home for the first time, it takes more than physical preparedness

To handle the challenges of the adult world.  A coddled baby isn’t going to be ready to see

your tail lights if you don’t take purposeful steps to prepare for the big day.

Step 4 - Form a good sized release group

At Squirrel Refuge, when an orphan arrives, it is placed with orphans of the same species and

developmental stage as part of a ‘release group.’  These squirrels will go through the rehabilitation

process together, grow and develop together, wild up together, and be released together.

Growing up with ‘siblings’ (Even those artificially introduced) builds life long relationships and the social skills that will be the backbone of hand rearing a squirrel that knows what he  or she is and how to interact with its own species in the wild.   The ideal group size is  at least  3  to 5 squirrels Per box. The larger the release group, the less likely it will be that a resident squirrel will even attempt to display your squirrels at the release site.  After all, no squirrel wants to mess with a ‘gang’ of large healthy squirrels.

We don’t ever recommend releasing a single squirrel, particularly one reared alone.  A baby raised with humans before its eyes open and then subsequently not given the opportunity to interact with other squirrels will never behave properly in the wild much like a human would behave in  an analogous situation.   Squirrels such as these will live as outcasts. Always raise wildlife with others of its kind.   A single squirrel raised alone past sixteen weeks is what we call at Squirrel Refuge, a pet squirrel.   If the single squirrel entered care at an age where its eyes were opened (after five weeks), it can often be successfully released alone if returned where it was found among genetically related squirrels.

Step 5 - Build or buy a release box

Reference the links for building or buying a release box to help you to provide appropriate housing.  The squirrel must be use to the box before being released. We recommend moving the release box into the enclosure a minimum of one week before release, preferably longer.  Fill the box with any material that  is warm but will dry out quickly if wet such as dried moss or artificial fabrics like  fleece cut into  strips so the squirrels can easily arrange to their liking.  Do not include any ‘stringy’ materials that may get wrapped around legs or toes.

Building a Squirrel House
Building a Squirrel House

Our design for building a squirrel house; as well as, links to other designs and information to help you build the best box for your squirrel(s)

Buying a Squirrel House
Building a Squirrel House

Tips on what to watch for when purchasing a release house.  There are many affordable options and designs with features that

It’s a wild animal, don’t I just ‘let it go’?

The short answer is, absolutely not! Most prey species such as squirrels and rabbits, even those provided with the advantages of instinct and natural parenting, do no live to see their first birthday. How much harder it will be to survive for orphans raised by well meaning humans.  Even adult predatory species like raccoons are more likely than not to perish when released without proper planning and consideration for their natural history (R.C. Rosatte, and MacInnes, C.D. 1989).

Never leave any unprepared orphaned baby wild animal alone in an unfamiliar environment thinking you are releasing it back to nature or ‘giving it a chance’.  You’re not, it has no chance. It is much kinder to take it to a humane society or veterinarian for humane euthanasia if no other options exist. The end result will be the same, but the means will be vastly more compassionate.

In one study 97% of adult squirrels relocated were either killed or chased off from the release location within three months of release (Adams, L.W., Hadidian J., and Flyger, V, 2004). These were healthy adult wild squirrels. Image how much more difficult it will be for young and inexperienced orphans.  

At Squirrel Refuge, in post release follow-up studies done a two weeks, one month, and three months, most of the squirrels were seen at or near the release site.  Some hosts accounted for all orphans released at the site at three months. One reported observing babies in the nest box the following fall.   While errors in identification are possible, evidence strongly supports that the probability of survival is increased when factors such as appropriate pre-release preparation, time of year, release site selection, appropriate housing, and follow up support are provided.   

Factors to improve post release survival

  1. Understand the natural history of the species you are releasing.
  1. Choosing a good day when the weather forecast is expected to be mild
  2. Choosing the right time appropriate for the species
  1. Selecting an appropriate location.
  1. Provide appropriate housing.
  1. Provide follow up support.

Raising Squirrels for Release
Building a Squirrel House

Raising a releaseable squirrel is dependant on making good choices during the rehabilitation process to prepare the squirrel for the physical, social and psychological demands of surviving in the wild.

Raising Releasable Squirrels


Adams, L.W., Hadidian J., and Flyger, V. Movement and mortality of translocated urban-suburban grey squirrels. Animal Welfare 2004, 13: 45-50

Casy, S., Understanding Squirrel Natural History in Squirrel Wildlife Rehabilitation Decisions. 2011.

R.C. Rosatte, and MacInnes, C.D. Relocation of city raccoons.  Proceedings of the Great Plains Wildlife Damage Conference  1989. 9: 87-92

Step 7 - Select the release location

The ideal location is at or near where the squirrels where recovered.   While parks look ideal, its usually illegal to release there and generally there’s already an abundant population of squirrels present who will chase off your squirrels at the first opportunity.

Select an area with lots of trees where the branches overlap.   Squirrels are safest when they are able to move from tree to tree without traveling at ground level. This is true for Eastern Gray, Douglas squirrels and chipmunks. Fox squirrels and any species of ground squirrel are more comfortable on the ground.

Select a tree that’s 10 or more inches in diameter. Bigger is better! Evergreens are ideal but deciduous trees work as well.  If its near nut bearing oaks, walnuts or filberts all the better.

Step 8 - Get prepared!

On the morning of the release,  have your nails, hammer, something ‘breathable’ to block the squirrels in the box (we place a piece of hardware mesh over the opening and secure with a bungee cord), ladder and and anything else you need ready to go.   If the squirrels are wild and not easily contained, you will need to block them in early in the morning while its still dark to make sure everyone is in the box for their big adventure.  The squirrels must not be contained in the small box for more than an hour and always make sure that air is available.

Step 9 - Up you go!

This is the riskiest part of the entire process (and my least favorite!).  We recommend hiring a tree trimmer or someone use to climbing trees to place the nest box.  If you do decide to do this yourself (at your own risk), we have a few suggestions pulled from our own Squirrel Refuge book of shame.

it can bear the weight of the box.

This will make it much easier to affix the box to the tree and reduce the likelihood of

needing to balance on the ladder, while balancing a box of angry squirrels in one hand

and leaning back to reach over the box to affix it to the tree with the other

(This is much harder then it sounds)

making attaching it to the tree much easier. (B)

The tree.  I replace the covering used during transport with a big wadded up towel that I can just pull out when the box is on the tree.

You can put them in a carrier and take the carrier up the ladder to the box if you have any doubts.

Rehabilitating that squirrel on your own doesn't sound so good anymore, does it?

Step 10 - Follow up support

Squirrels born in the spring have it much easier since they have plenty of food and time to prepare for winter.  These squirrels should still be provided with supplemental food and water (if no natural source is readily available) for at least a month post release.

Fall born squirrels don’t have it nearly as easy.  In the wild, fall born squirrels ‘over winter ‘with their mothers who have presumably prepared for them by storing food.  Since they have no mother and no food stores, they MUST be  provided for until spring, otherwise they will very likely starve over the winter months or fall prey as they venture out in search of food in unfamiliar areas.

You did the right thing

You bottle fed it, mothered it and worried over every sniffle and now its gone.  Is it cold?  Will it find its nest box?   Is something going to eat it? All of these are normal feelings. Even after releasing hundred’s of animals, even experienced rehabilitators second guess every decision and still know that returning an animal to its rightful place in the natural world is the right thing to do.  Rehabilitation provides no guarantees. We cant promise that any animal we release back into the wild will survive, but we can give it a second change too survive. Wild animals can never be happy confined to a small cage with no normal social interaction. Take a deep breath, poor yourself a nice glass of wine, put up your feet and pat yourself on the back. You did it!

Releasing Adult squirrels that have recovered from an injury

Always return adult squirrels to the area where they were recovered. This is where their home is, where they are familiar, and where all of their food stores are. Every squirrel needs a home to retreat to for shelter, protection, food storage, rest, and rearing young.  If an adult squirrel is returning to the same location where it was recovered in a reasonably short time, it is unlikely that a house is  needed - or even appropriate - as most will prefer the familiarity of their dray or den. This is particularly true for  species that often have multiple nest sites, such as eastern grays.   If its been a month or so and the weather has turned cold, follow the same suggestions as for releasing orphans.

We always arrange with property owner to provide supplemental food and follow up to make sure the squirrels are doing well.

Step 6 - Acclimate to outside temperatures

If you’re releasing in spring or summer, this is usually not a huge issue. If you are releasing in weather that is substantially different than their climate of rearing (or in winter), you must acclimate the squirrel to the outside temperatures before release. This means putting the squirrels outside in a large predator proof cage protected from direct sun, snow, cold wind, or rain during the day for a few weeks before leaving out overnight. The cage bars should be no larger than 1/2 inch apart.  Whenever, you leave a squirrel outside you must provide it with ample room to move away from the sides of the cage and a box where it can retreat from the sight of predators.

The box must be positioned to prevent raccoons or cats reaching in and grasping an arm or tail.

Understanding Squirrel Natural History in Squirrel Wildlife Rehabilitation Decisions

Click Here

Links and other helpful resources to assist you in finding qualified help for injured and orphaned wildlife.

Find a Wildlife Rehabilitator
Find a Rehabilitator
Orphan Care
Orphan Care

What to do when no help is available.

Adult Squirrel Care
Adult Care

Adult squirrels get in trouble too!  

Information on addressing the needs of juvenile and adult squirrels.


We can’t always help but we will always try.

Feel free to contact us for advice or assistance in locating local resources to help you.

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Up you go!

(Is it too late to call a rehabilitator?)