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Many squirrels live in nests called which type of animal lives in a “drey“?s, large piles of twigs and leaves high in the fork of a tree. Special breeding dreys are built to raise young in and these tend to be bigger than normal dreys.
Squirrels are members of the family Sciuridae, a family that includes small or medium-size rodents. Squirrels are indigenous to the Americas, Eurasia, and Africa, and were introduced by humans to Australia. Squirrels typically have slender bodies with bushy tails and large eyes. In general, their fur is soft and silky, although much thicker in some species than others.
Squirrels live in almost every habitat from tropical rainforest to semiarid desert, avoiding only the high polar regions and the driest of deserts. They are predominantly herbivorous, subsisting on seeds and nuts, but many will eat insects and even small vertebrates.
In general squirrels have an excellent sense of vision, which is especially important for tree-dwelling species. They also have very versatile and sturdy claws for grasping and climbing. Many also have a good sense of touch.
Dreys (Nests), Habitat and Food
Squirrels are active all year round and do not hibernate. A squirrel lives in a nest known as a ‘drey’, comprising of a dense ball of interwoven twigs (roughly the size of a football), lined inside with soft materials including moss, leaves, grass and fir. Dreys are usually located in the fork of a branch tight against the tree trunk, around two-thirds of the way up the tree.
Red squirrels will usually have more than one drey and have often been observed moving their kits from one to another.
Red squirrels live in trees, so are known as ‘arboreal,’ living in all types of woodland. In more fragmented landscapes such as agricultural and suburban areas, they exploit pockets of trees and woodlands connected by hedgerows and other wildlife corridors.
The notion that red squirrels prefer conifers is somewhat confusing. They are increasingly restricted to large conifer woodlands and plantations due to competition from encroaching grey squirrels. They can exist in conifers better than grey squirrels but red squirrels will reach their highest population densities in mixed or broadleaf woodlands with a diversity of species and availability of food.
Red squirrels primarily eat seeds from plants and trees, but their diet can vary greatly throughout the year. Food is plentiful during the autumn and winter months when trees are rich with seeds and fungi are available. However, food can be scarcer during spring and summer, when their diet extends to include plant shoots, bulbs, flowers, wild fruits and berries, and even insects and occasionally bird eggs.
Supplementary feeding in boxes should include a good quality squirrel mix of hazlenuts (in shells), wheat, linseed, pine nuts, peanuts (limited), sunflower seeds and fruit or vegetables such as apples and carrots. Supplementary feeding should not take the place of natural food sources and only small amounts of food should be put out every 3-4 days. For more information go to Red Squirrels in My Garden or Gwiwerod-Coch-ynfy-Ngardd-GWE.
Dreys (nests), Habitat and Food
Squirrels are active all year round and do not hibernate. A squirrel lives in a nest known as a ‘drey’, comprising of a ball of interwoven twigs, lined inside with soft materials including moss, leaves, grass and fir. Dreys are usually located in the fork of a branch tight against the tree trunk, around two-thirds of the way up the tree.
Grey squirrel dreys are often bigger and untidier than those of red squirrels, whose dreys they may take over. They will sometimes also create ‘nests’ inside the roof cavities of buildings.
The grey squirrel has adapted from the mixed broadleaved woodlands of North America to our lowland mixed broadleaf woodlands, which provide an abundant, diverse diet but, importantly, which have no natural predators other than foxes. However, there is growing evidence that when pine marten populations increase, those of grey squirrels decrease. They are equally at home in large woodlands, parks, farmland, suburban and urban areas.
Grey squirrels do not thrive in purely coniferous habitats, needing to retain their weight throughout the winter which is not possible on a diet of cones. However, they will live in conifers if other food sources are available.
Grey squirrels are opportunistic feeders eating any kind of fruits, seeds, fungi, eggs and fledglings, buds and bark from trees. They have even been seen to eat grey squirrel carcasses from road kills. Greys are better able to eat unripe acorns, hazel nuts and other foods than reds.
Good Natured: Squirrel Dreys
There’s no place like home. Dorothy Gale said it as she clacked her ruby slippers together, and Perry Como and the Carpenters sang about it, noting that it’s even better at the holidays.
In fact today, given our COVID mitigations, we often find we really have no place BUT home.
With the prospect of a long, cold winter just ahead, we want to make sure our chosen domiciles are warm and snug. We caulk around our door and window frames; we toss extra insulation down in the attic; we pile extra blankets on the bed and thumb our noses at Ol’ Man Winter.
But you know whose homes are the warmest? The most windproof and waterproof? It’s not yours, and it’s not mine.
Oh I know they don’t look like much. A pile of leaves high in a tree. How could they possibly offer any sort of protection from the elements?
I tell you though, they do. Driven by instinct, but certainly with some learning along the way, our local squirrels create some of the best-engineered winter homes around. Twigs, often gnawed from a tree when the leaves are still intact, form the framework upon which layer upon layer of more leaves are stacked, woven and stuffed. The thick walls of overlapping material keep wind, water and snow from penetrating to the interior, while pockets of air provide insulation that keep cold air out and warm air in.
How successful are these structures? Numerous studies have tracked the temperatures inside of squirrel nests-which, incidentally, are sometimes referred to as dreys. Researchers in Lapland, where winters are c-c-c-cold, found that dreys routinely measured 20C to 30C (that’s 68F to 86F) warmer than the ambient air temperature, provided the squirrel was tucked inside providing body heat. Researchers monitoring dreys in Russia, where it’s also quite c-c-cold, noted similar results.
Closer to home, in the woods of Maine, where it’s still ch-chilly, Bernd Heinrich-one of my favorite naturalist-authors-has examined the materials and designs of all sorts of nests, including those of gray squirrels. In Winter World-one of my favorite nature books-Heinrich describes the structure of a gray squirrel drey that blew down during a rainstorm. (Okay, so maybe that calamity shoots a tiny hole in my statement that these nests are weatherproof. But I’ll bet it’s the only nest, ever, that’s suffered such a fate…lol…)
During his investigation Heinrich found that the 12-in. diameter nest featured 26 layers of oak leaves–flattened, dried and overlapped like shingles-that sheltered a 1 1/2-in. layer of shredded bark, which ensconced a 3 1/2-in. wide central chamber. The layers inside the leaves were all bone dry, despite the nest having come down during a driving rain. Home sweet home at its finest!
So at this point you might be wondering, “This is all great for the squirrels. But how does it affect me?”
Well, truth be told, other than knowing our local squirrels retreat to well-insulated nests on cold winter nights, your direct benefit from dreys could stop right there.
Or it could save your life.
That’s right. Creating a framework of sticks and twigs, then insulating it with leaves, is commonly taught as a method of wilderness survival. Known as a debris hut, it’s based on drey construction methods and keeps its human occupant warm and toasty-just like those squirrels in Finland, Russia and Maine.
Talk a look around your neighborhood and, so long as there are trees, it will not take you long to find one with a leafy nest. Examine it as best you can from a distance-most squirrels like to build at a height of around 30 feet-and see if it looks like a well formed ball of leaves. If it does, congrats! You’ve found a winter drey.
But if it’s loosely constructed, flat or falling apart, you might have found a summer drey, or even a fake one. In Winter World, Bernd Heinrich tosses out this latter possibility after having examined many dreys he called junk. He also mentions that squirrels may build these phony nests as a way of deceiving drey-raiding predators.
At any rate, once you’ve found one solid squirrel nest, see if you can find another, and another. Tree squirrels, both gray and fox, are plentiful throughout our area, and they all need a place to call home. But the savvy squirrels-most who survive their first year qualify-don’t stop with just one dray. Building at least two means the animal will have a backup when the gales of November, or really any winter month, come early. A spare will also come in handy if fleas or other parasites proliferate, or if a marauding owl or raccoon destroys a drey.
In its heart of hearts, every squirrel would no doubt prefer to have a tree cavity to call home. Even the sturdiest dreys can’t compare to a house made of wood. But such accommodations are rare indeed, especially in our suburban environments. So dreys it is.
Warm, dry, safe, secure. Even if it’s just a ball of twigs and leaves, there’s no place like home.