Squirrels are surprisingly controversial little critters. Most people either love them or hate them.
Haters don’t like that squirrels eat lots of things, especially expensive bird seed served up for their favorite feathered friends. Squirrels also seem to like making salads out of anything growing in a garden.
Squirrels can also get into attics and eat insulation, and they’re just usually not welcome guests inside a house.
On the other hand, lots of people think that they’re really cute as they scamper across the lawn with big fluffy tails. They’re very clever, or at least they think they are, when they climb trees and hide the treasures they’ve scavenged.
Let’s learn a little more about squirrels, including what they can and cannot eat.
Squirrels are classified as kingdom Animalia, phylum Chordata, class Mammalia, order Rodentia, suborder Sciuromorpha, and family Sciuridae, which is primarily made up of small to medium-sized rodents.
Other family members include chipmunks, marmots, groundhogs, and prairie dogs. Out of that family, squirrels are most closely related to dormice and mountain beavers.
The earliest known protosquirrel fossils date back to the Eocene epoch, which makes squirrels at least 34 million years old. It is believed that the common ancestor of all modern squirrels came from North America, as all three main squirrel lineages can be traced back there.
Squirrels are indigenous to Africa, Eurasia, and the Americas. Humans brought them to Australia, where they are considered exotic and are sometimes featured in zoo exhibits.
Now, squirrels live on every continent except for Antarctica. However, most squirrels never travel more than two miles from where they were born.
If you noticed that the squirrel family Sciuridae kind of looks like “squirrel,” congratulations. The word squirrel is derived from the ancient Greek skiouros, which means “shadow-tailed” and refers to the long bushy tail that many of its members proudly flaunt.
A group of squirrels is called a scurry, which seems very appropriate. January 21 is National Squirrel Appreciation Day.
Squirrels are synanthropes, which means that they benefit from interacting in human environments. They have lost their natural fear of humans in large cities; in fact, they can even become aggressive when demanding food.
The African pygmy squirrel is the smallest squirrel at just over four inches long and less than one ounce in weight. The Bhutan giant flying squirrel is at the opposite end of the spectrum at over four feet long.
Squirrels usually have four to five toes on each paw, and the toes have strong claws that are versatile for grasping and climbing. Their ankles can rotate 180 degrees.
They have excellent vision, which is important for tree-dwelling animals, and they also have a good sense of touch and feel.
One characteristic that most modern squirrel species share is the long, bushy tail. Squirrel tails have evolved to perform several functions, including serving as a counterbalance when jumping between trees, acting as a parachute when jumping out of trees, serving as a signal, cooling off when hot, and providing shelter from wind and rain.
Squirrels are unable to digest cellulose. They need to eat plenty of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
The average American grey squirrel eats about one pound of food per week. This doesn’t seem like a lot, but squirrels are pretty small and the fact that they eat so much relative to their body weight points to how high their metabolisms are.
They are mostly herbivores and their main sources of food include nuts, seeds, cones, fruits, fungi, and other vegetation (but more on that later). Some squirrels will also eat bird eggs and insects, and especially if their preferred foods are in short supply, they may eat young birds and snakes too.
Late winter and early spring are when squirrels are most desperate for food, since the nuts they stashed earlier in the season may have rotted or sprouted but new plants have not yet begun to produce food.
Of everything that Mother Nature has to offer, fruit is probably squirrels’ favorite. They will go to great lengths to “steal” fruit from trees, bushes, and vines.
Unfortunately, it often happens that a piece of fruit is too big for a squirrel who is, after all, not a very big animal. The squirrel will take a few bites and leave the rest of the fruit to rot.
In the beginning of this piece, we said that most people either love or hate squirrels. It’s behavior such as this that lands squirrels in the second half of that statement.
Squirrels will go after berries, apples, pears, grapes, peaches, figs, nectarines, kiwi, plums, mangos, melons, bananas, and just about any other fruits that they can find. As you probably know, squirrels are very busy little beings and the sugar rush from the fruit supplies energy.
These little guys have even been known to sample fruit that has sat around long enough to ferment, and the results are exactly what you might expect.
Gardeners know all too well that squirrels also enjoy most kinds of fresh vegetables. They’ve been known to chow down on lettuce and other leafy greens, tomatoes, corn, radishes, squash, root vegetables (if they can get at them), broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, okra, and pretty much any crop they can find.
Squirrels don’t really know the difference between a lawn and a salad bar, so if new growth of grass and leaves looks tender and tasty, they will dine on that as well. This includes shoots from bulbs that you have planted and nurtured in your garden.
Fungi is tasty to them too, especially in natural environments such as forests where there is a wide variety of rich mushrooms, morels, and lichen. Squirrels will even leave mushrooms to dry out, and they will then store the dried fungi for later use.
More Squirrel Snacks
We wrote above that squirrels benefit from human interaction, especially in urban environments, and one of those benefits is the vast quantity of new and different foods that people provide. There are plenty of foods that squirrels probably would never get in nature but do enjoy very much when they can.
One of these treats is cheese. A whole lot of old-time cartoons centered around how much mice and other rodents love cheese.
This is true, of course, and squirrels are rodents as well. They have developed quite a taste for cheese and are very eager to grab it when they can; this can include pizza scraps or treats scavenged from trash and compost piles.
Besides the fact that cheese is pretty darn tasty, the fat and protein in cheese helps squirrels store energy for leaner times.
Breads and cereals are also beloved when they can be found, and squirrels aren’t very picky about what kind they are. They also seem to be a perennial favorite.
Overly sugared kids’ cereals aren’t super healthy for anyone, and that includes squirrels, but the carbohydrates and sugar do provide an energy boost to do some zoomies as well as some energy to store for later.
Prepared pet food is another source of nourishment that isn’t found in nature, but is very much appreciated by squirrels just the same. If you leave dry food out for your dog or cat, there’s a very good chance that some squirrels will help themselves; they don’t seem to like canned wet food as much, but that won’t stop them if they’re really hungry.
We think that bird seed belongs in this section too. Technically, bird food does not count as people food, and it’s made up of nuts and seeds, which are most definitely found in nature.
But Mother Nature does not serve up dishes of carefully curated and shelled nut and seed mixes, like people set out in their bird feeders. Bird feeders very often become squirrel feeders as well.
Not everyone appreciates this, of course. One way to keep squirrels at bay from your bird feeders is to lace the bird seed with hot chili pepper (inexpensive generics are just fine here).
Birds cannot smell or taste the capsaicin in hot pepper, so they won’t mind at all, but squirrels can taste it and they do not like it! This is a relatively inexpensive and harmless way to keep your bird food for your birds.
What Squirrels Shouldn’t Eat
There really aren’t that many things that squirrels shouldn’t eat. They tend not to like raw onions, raw garlic, or hot peppers.
As mentioned above, hot pepper is actually a pretty good squirrel deterrent. If you want to protect your gardens or flowerbeds, try planting some hot peppers around the perimeter.
Certain flower bulbs, such as daffodil, snowdrop, and hyacinth, are not tasty to squirrels either. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always stop the squirrels from digging them up and taking a bite before they decide that they don’t like it.
Dairy, candy, junk food, and highly processed foods would never be part of a squirrel’s diet in nature, and they really aren’t all that healthy for squirrels (or anyone). But squirrels will eat this stuff if they can get it.
Even if human junk food isn’t optimal nourishment for squirrels, it’s okay in relatively small doses. Squirrels are energetic with tremendously fast metabolisms, and they will burn it off quickly.
And Now: Can Squirrels Eat Walnuts?
Yes! Squirrels love walnuts, and most other kinds of nuts as well.
It’s almost as if Mother Nature actually designed squirrels to eat nuts. The four teeth in the front of squirrels’ mouths grow constantly for all of their lives.
This means that squirrels have to chew on nuts, acorns, and other hard-shelled foods so that they wear these teeth down; otherwise, the teeth will keep growing and this could be uncomfortable or even dangerous.
Squirrels love nuts. Here’s a list of which nuts are best for squirrels:
- Beechnuts, Butternuts, Hazelnuts, Pecans: Excellent for squirrels, and the shells promote healthy gnawing
- Raw Peanuts: Can be dangerous if they are contaminated with fungus
- Roasted Peanuts: Fine if they are not salted
- Pistachios: Fine if they are white, not okay if they are red
- American or Black Walnuts: Excellent for squirrels, and the shells promote healthy gnawing
As you can see from the list above, squirrels can indeed eat walnuts. If you have a walnut tree nearby, you’ll surely see plenty of squirrels trying to collect the nuts.
Black walnuts seem to be the favored nuts, but regular American walnuts will do just fine. If you do not have a tree nearby, you can buy walnuts in bulk for your squirrel friends, and make sure to leave them in their shells when you put them out to share.
Walnuts are actually very good for squirrels. Besides promoting tooth health, they provide good amounts of fiber, protein, healthy fats, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, copper, phosphorus, folic acid, manganese, and vitamins B6 and E.
We know why these substances are good for human bodies, and while squirrel bodies are obviously a bit different (much better tails!), they will benefit from these as well. The protein, fiber, and fats supply energy, both to fuel squirrels’ incredibly high metabolisms and to prepare them for leaner winters.
Squirrels will eat the walnuts off the tree, and they will also try to store the walnuts for later use. This behavior is part of their nature and they’re not going to stop doing it even if they are assured of a steady food supply; they have evolved to be hoarders.
Squirrels are notorious for stashing walnuts and acorns and then apparently forgetting where they put them, although perhaps it’s not quite as random to them as it appears to be to us. Scientists have observed that squirrels actually put quite a bit of thought into where they create their nut caches.
However, some squirrels are better at it than others, it seems. One Pennsylvania squirrel managed to stash over 200 walnuts, neatly sorted and wrapped in grass for safety, under the hood of a family’s car.