Squirrel Control—An Oxymoron?
Plants & Gardens News Volume 15, Number 4
by Niall Dunne
One pleasant evening last spring, I was strolling through Brooklyn Botanic Garden with a group of fellow students in a plant ID class. We were joyfully weaving among planting beds, differentiating between pigsqueaks and cowslips when, suddenly, everybody froze in front of a large weeping willow. It wasn't so much the tree's enchantingly droopy habit that caught our attention as the spectacle of a red-tailed hawk fifteen feet above us in the branches.
With its steely talons and beak, the bird held and unceremoniously picked through the remains of a small, bushy-tailed rodent. The dead critter was an eastern gray squirrel, occasional nemesis of many urban and suburban gardeners. Some folks in our group were visibly elated.
Perhaps they were remembering all the squirrel crimes that had gone unpunished in their gardens over the years—the excavated bulbs, hijacked fruits and vegetables, decapitated flowers, and raided bird feeders. Or maybe they were just enjoying the rare sight of a magnificent bird of prey in action. Either way, they looked ready to spoon-feed squirrels up the tree all night long.
Hot Pepper & Wolf Pee
Gardeners have a special relationship with squirrels, especially during the months of winter and early spring, when nuts and berries are scarce and squirrel scavenging around—and even in—the home intensifies. With every squirrel-sized bite out of a prized crocus, our tolerance for their acrobatic antics is put to the test.
Animals and birds are a major component of the BBG experience. Not surprisingly, squirrel control is minimal here. "One year we laid a metal mesh down in the Magnolia Plaza beds after fall planting," says gardener Cynthia Giancaspro, "because a particularly voracious squirrel was eating all the tulips—and I mean all the tulips. But that was unusual. Normally, we let them have whatever they want."
BBG's Gardener's Resource Center encourages acceptance of squirrels as members of the wildlife community. "When someone calls me about a squirrel problem in their yard," says Joan McDonald, Assistant Manager of the GRC, "I tell them about Teddy, the first squirrel I knew and loved and welcomed into the family. Every day Teddy would come to my porch and hang out. Teddy had a real fondness for Georgia pecans. And as long as I kept him well fed, he didn't go near any of my plants."
"Squirrels are loners and quite territorial," continues Joan, "so feeding them shouldn't lead to an infestation. If callers are not entirely convinced by this argument, I then proceed through the long list of known options for squirrel control in the garden—the hot pepper wax, the chicken wire, the gizmos, the wolf pee. If I'm asked about their relative effectiveness, I say what everyone else here at the GRC says: they work and they don't work."
Furry Friend or Foe?
As responsible stewards of nature, we gardeners are pretty good at shrugging off the actions of offending squirrels. But sometimes our patience flags, and we become paranoid, seeing patterns of malevolence in their random foraging. We may even begin to suspect that anxiety and ambivalence about these particular small mammals is fundamental to the Human Condition—and that it's just a matter of time before DNA scientists isolate the gene.
Of course, this is just bad science. And there's plenty of that going around. "My favorite squirrel story," says BBG Director of Horticulture Jackie Fazio, "is the one about the teacher who was guiding her class through BBG and who stopped to watch a squirrel taking nesting material up a tree. She had the children all enthusiastic about the process, and then the next thing I hear her say is ‘So that's where the squirrel lays her eggs'. Ah yes, environmental education at its best!"
Squirrels do build winter nests or "dreys" in trees, lining them with fur for insulation (they also build "dens" in tree cavities), but they certainly don't fill them full of eggs. Squirrels are mammals—within the order Rodentia, hence the rodent moniker—and so give birth to live young, usually in litters of three or four.
Mating season for squirrels is winter and early spring. (Their gestation period is usually only about five or six weeks). This adds an extra urgency to their feeding habits. What to us sometimes seems like greed and gluttony may actually be "labors of love" for squirrels. But why aren't they laboring in the wild instead of in our gourmet vegetable patches? The consensus is that it probably has more to do with our clear-cutting their arboreal homes than with squirrels developing a taste for haute cuisine.
If that doesn't win you over to their side, keep in mind that squirrels are gardeners, too! Sort of. "Because they bury nuts and then often forget where they put them, squirrels are very effective agents of reforestation," says University of Richmond biologist and squirrel expert Dr. Peter Smallwood. "But they provide other valuable ecosystem services, too. For instance, they make a tasty meal for predators like foxes, raccoons, and red-tailed hawks."
Listener tip from Judy J: A tip for keeping squirrels from digging in your garden or planters - I grate some Irish Spring original bar soap and mix it with my warm used coffee grounds. I don't have any problems so far and have many gray squirrels.