Having more squirrel

Published 6:15 am Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Squirrel hunting is a popular pastime in our area, second only to rabbits in the small game category. For woodland owners that want to encourage high squirrel populations, the key is having the right habitat.

The gray or fox squirrel’s diet consists mostly of nuts, seeds, and fruit (all three referred to as mast) of hardwood trees. Agricultural grains, mushrooms, flowers, buds, and insects provide variety in their diet. A single squirrel will consume an average of 1 to 1½ pounds of mast per week, and six to twelve mast-producing trees can usually supply this. So one key to squirrel habitat is having mature mast trees (trees 60 to 100 years old) available. Hard mast producing trees include oak, hickory, and beech. Soft mast trees include dogwood, black cherry, serviceberry, mulberry, and blackgum. Squirrel have a liking for red maple seeds in the spring.

A second important habitat need for squirrels are den trees. These are used for nests, shelter, and escape purposes. Dens are fashioned from almost any tree cavity large enough and has a good entrance. A good den tree should be at least 15 inches in diameter and contains a small cavity 1 to 3 feet deep with an opening no larger than 4 inches. The cavity should be at least 20 feet off the ground. Three to four den trees per acre is a decent number to shoot for.

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Some forests lack trees with natural cavities, and you can encourage den formation by partially girdling the trunks of a few soft maples, beech, elm, or blackgum trees. A more certain way of creating dens is to build and place nesting boxes throughout the woodlot. Nesting box plans are easy to find on line from several state agencies.

Water is important for any wildlife species, and squirrels get it from various sources such as dew, succulent foods, rain, snow, frost, streams, hollow stumps, tree cavities, and ponds. It’s good to have permanent standing water available during dry periods, and if water is not available they will migrate to areas that have it. Only small but dependable water sources are needed.

Fencerows are valuable to squirrels that live in small woodlots in farming areas. They provide avenues of travel between woodlots and provide cover that allows food gathering from adjoining agricultural grain crops.

Steve Roark is a retired area forester from Tazewell, Tennessee.