Saturday, November 12, 2011

Speaking of Dreys

A "drey" is the year-round home of the largest group of living mammals:  The Rodentia.   In that order lives the squirrel whose home I feature today.

As the leaves have fallen from our hardwood trees, it's obvious we have many large squirrel nests in the woods.  They seem more abundant and built larger than normal - could this be a sign of nature sensing an especially brutal winter?  We'll see...

Several of our nests have brightly colored fall leaves entwined indicating they are either new or newly refurbished.  Since we have multitudes of walnut trees and this was a very productive nut year, we have an ideal environment for squirrels.

Plus, they seem to enjoy the many leaf "whips" from the walnuts and the long ends off our willow tree.  Both are woven into the nest and stick out randomly all over the outside.

This is an especially active time for squirrels.  In addition to making sure their nests are winter worthy, it is leading up to breeding which takes place from December through February.  

Although our gray squirrels do not hibernate, during winter storms and severe cold they may not leave the drey for days.  An adult squirrel normally lives alone. But will, in severe cold, share its nest with other squirrels to conserve body heat. Once the temperature rises, the guests will be on their way.

They need to eat about one pound of food a week to survive.  They prefer nuts, seeds, and fruit.  Reportedly they wipe seed shells on their faces to impart their scent, bury and can smell their own buried food even under a foot of snow.  Others report it's all a lucky guess.

Another interesting fact:  squirrels feet sweat.  The sweat (and urination) marks their territory.

A word of caution:  "Rodentia" is the formal name for "rodent".  They can harbor fleas, ants, and parasites.  They may also be infected with rabies.  They bite - it's what they do and they have powerful jaws and teeth.  DO NOT hand feed squirrels, pet or play with them.  DO NOT take them in as a pet (against the law in some areas).  They can not be house trained. 

Watch, take pictures, and use an outdoor feeder if you want, but DO NOT try to make them your next favorite pet.  Do I need to say "rodent" again?  If you are wanting to "help" an injured squirrel, contact your local Wildlife Rehabilitation" expert and let them do the handling.

Back to nests:  They may live in the leafy tree nests or in tree cavity dens.  Oaks, beeches, elms and red maples are favored by squirrels for dens or leaf nests. Ground holes may be used as emergency shelters by tree squirrels.

Squirrel tree nests are almost always at least 20 foot off the ground.  If grapes, bittersweet or other tall climbers are in your woods, they are often used as more support. 

Construction begins with a platform of twigs roughly woven together, upon which damp leaves and moss are compacted to form a solid base. A spherical skeleton of interwoven twigs and vines is erected around the base. The outer shell is then completed with the addition of leaves, moss, twigs, and even paper.

According to Art Shamo of the "West Virginia Wildlife Magazine", "The inner nest cavity is six to eight inches in diameter and is lined with shredded bark, grass, and leaves. This soft lining is especially important to cradle the delicate infants which weigh about half an ounce at birth and whose skin is almost transparent.

Nests of gray and fox squirrels may measure up to two feet wide and a foot high. Red squirrel nests are proportionately smaller. Opposite the main entrance, the wary bushy tail builds a leaf-concealed escape hatch.  Second and third homes are popular."

In researching, some folks with household pets empty their sweeper bags under trees.  The pet hair is used to line the squirrel nests, especially the room used for the babies.  There are also many diagrams/instructions on how to build squirrel nest houses. 

Another good source for adult squirrel watchers or for school papers:

The last little tidbit:  Washington DC is called the "Squirrel Capital of the World" because there are more squirrels there than anyplace else.  There has to be a joke in there someplace!

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