Dedicated to making the world a
better place one squirrel at a time
Raising releasable squirrels
Northwest tree squirrels (grays, foxes, pine squirrels...) Do not pair bond. The young male doesn’t leave home and meet a girl squirrel in squirrel college, where they court, marry, and then move into a nice home to start a family in the squirrel suburbs.
Tree squirrels come together only during brief periods of breeding receptivity once, twice, or maybe three times per year (depending on the species) when the female will allow only those males lucky enough to catch her, the opportunity to mate with her. If a male approaches a female at any other time of year, she will bite his face off. It is not uncommon for littermates to be sired from different fathers.
That means that there are only a few relationships a squirrel will have in its life. A female will have a relationship with her mother, her siblings and her young, and a male with his mother and his siblings. A male squirrel that has no mama, brothers or sisters will have no other close relationships in its life.
Why is that important? These family bonds make that squirrel generally welcome in that group and ensure that he or she has a place in the nest box on a cold night. If he is dropped off outside of that group, he will likely be chased off. There are some behavioral differences between species when it comes to communal nesting in inclement weather, but the general idea here is that if the squirrels are going to have siblings and they are orphans, then there is a ‘window’ of time in rehabilitation to foster these relationships. I have found this to be generally before 8 weeks of age although, if given time and enough social distances, even other squirrels will come to accept new squirrels into their ‘group’, but its not guaranteed nor are those bonds as ‘tight’ as when you raise a group of babies under five weeks together.
If you have a single Fox squirrel then its certainly better to put him in with the grays than to raise him separately, but if you have grays and you have foxes, then separate them to avoid confusion during breeding season. Squirrels do not have mirrors and even if they do, its doubtful they have the thinking processes to achieve self awareness. It is reasonable to surmise that a fox squirrel surrounded by grays will think it is a gray and at some point chase around gray females who will not be amused at the fox squirrel’s confusion.
You can mix prey animals of different species that do not have a natural predator/prey
relationship (like bunnies and squirrels) but you cannot release a squirrel that
has been nurtured by a predator (such as a dog or cat -
Planning is vital to ensuring each squirrel gets the best shot at survival. Planning starts early in the rehabilitation process, from raising the squirrel in an appropriately sized release group, building a house, selecting a site, and taking into consideration factors and time of year.
The prime directive for every wildlife rehabilitator is to return injured and orphaned wildlife back into the wild. This is hard for even experienced rehabilitators who have come to deeply care for individuals after long nights and hours upon hours of care. We may question ourselves and second guess our decisions, but in the end, when the time comes, we must dismiss our personal feelings and do what is right and fair for the animal. Underlying that goal when rehabilitating prey species, is the hope that all of our hard work doesn’t instantly get snatched up by the neighbor’s cat or the first passing car.
Most squirrels die in the first year of life (WDFW, 2004), with many sources siting death rates as high as 70%. As wildlife rehabilitators, we can’t guarantee a long life for any animal we release, only the opportunity to live that life. Nonetheless, there are several things we can do to up the odds.
Stereotypical behaviors such as pacing, back flipping, jumping, rocking, excessive
Stereotypical behavior can sometimes be reduced or eliminated by environmental enrichment, including larger and more stimulating enclosures, training, and introductions of stimuli (such as objects, sounds, or scents) to the animal's environment.
The enrichment must be varied to remain effective for any length of time. Housing social animals with other members of their species is also helpful. But once the behavior is established, it is sometimes impossible to eliminate due to alterations in the brain. (Davis, 2004)
There’re multiple YouTube clips demonstrating excellent examples of stereotypical behaviors resulting from an environment lacking any similarity to the natural habitat for a squirrel, too small for physical exercise, and completely devoid of mental stimulation.
Search YouTub for ‘squirrel back flips’ or see an example here. It doesn't take too much stretch of the imagination to consider the hell life is for a squirrel born to run in the trees, to live instead every day of its life in a bird cage.
Davis E, Down N, Garner J et al. Stereotypical behavior: a LAREF discussion . Lab
Primate Newsl. 2004 [cited 2009-
Garner JP, Mason GJ. Evidence for a relationship between cage stereotypies and behavioral disinhibition in laboratory rodents. Behav Brain Res. 2002;136(1):83–92
WDFW Living with Wildlife -
Although sometimes a predator is briefly thrown for a loop when the squirrel is more interested in food, playing or breeding than running away, the predator species usually figures it out more quickly than its lunch. For this reason, any prey species raised with predators is not ever releasable! This includes squirrels raised alone long term with people.