Nuts, nuts, nuts! This is what we think squirrels eat right? Well, they do eat nuts. But nuts are certainly not the only thing on the squirrel menu or even what they eat the most of. And some nuts can actually be bad for squirrels. Whether you are just curious or planning to feed your local squirrels, in this article, we have everything you need to know about the squirrel diet.
What Do Squirrels Eat?
Squirrels are naturally herbivores – their diet is primarily plant material. They will occasionally take an egg if times are tough. Insects have been found in squirrel stomach contents, but it’s unclear whether they have chosen these, or just picked them up with the plant matter they are eating.
There are also a few reports of squirrels taking chicks from ground-nesting birds. But squirrel predation is not a serious threat to our birds.
For both red and grey squirrels, the diet is pretty solidly vegetarian and includes:
- Plant Material – bark, bulbs, roots and shoots.
Let’s take a look at these in more detail.
The Squirrel Diet
Seeds are a significant part of the diet of both red and grey squirrels. In the wild squirrels will take the seeds of most trees and plants. Reds who favour coniferous forests are particularly keen on pine and spruce seeds.
Around humans, squirrels will eat many of the seeds our birds’ love, sunflower and safflower seeds and favourites, as are pumpkin seeds.
Squirrels eat the nuts of most of our native tree species. The shells are just as important as the kernels.
Like all rodents squirrels have 4 front teeth that grow continually. Cracking through the tough shells of nuts helps to keep these teeth warn down.
Our classic picture of the squirrel probably sees him burying acorns. And they do eat acorns, but they’re not as keen as you might think.
Acorns can be high in polyphenols or tannins. These are thought to interfere with squirrels’ ability to effectively digest nutrients. Some trees generate more tannins than others, and squirrels seem to know. They have been observed avoiding high tannin trees and heading for those with lower tanning levels.
Acorns are also one of the foods most often buried. It’s now thought that this isn’t because acorns are a favourite, it’s to let the tannins break down during storage. Clever eh?
Squirrels love a mushroom – not surprising really as both squirrels and mushrooms are most at home in woodland.
They will eat many types of mushroom and other fungi. They eat lichen, the much smaller green fungus found on trees. They are also said to be able to smell fungi and can find and eat truffles.
It gets better, squirrels seem to be a true mushroom connoisseur and will even leave mushrooms laid out at the base of trees to dry before eating them.
Packed with nutrients and energy-boosting natural sugars, fruits are a favourite squirrel food.
They will eat most fruits and vary their diet with the seasons. They Eat soft fruit during the summer, apples, pears and blackberries in autumn and winter berries to sustain them through the colder months.
Farmers and growers know that squirrels can be a major pest around fruit.
Squirrels also make a nuisance of themselves around vegetable fields and gardens. They love their leafy greens and kale, chard, and broccoli are all favourites. But they are not picky, and they will happily eat the young green shoots of most vegetables.
It might surprise you to know that squirrels enjoy tomatoes. That is until you remember that tomatoes are actually a fruit, and are packed with lovely seeds.
Squirrels aren’t keen on alliums. They will avoid onions, garlic and leeks. So interplanting a few of these in your other veg beds could help to save your crops.
Though not a typical food in their natural, woodland habitat grains feature in the squirrel diet when they are in contact with humans.
Squirrels will happily take corn, wheat and barley. Thus addicting to their reputation as a pest around crops and a bird table thief.
Squirrels will eat pretty much any part of a plant or tree, from bulbs and roots through bark to buds shoots and leaves.
This plant material is an essential part of their diet in two ways. First, it provides them with much of the fibre and roughage their digestion needs. Secondly, all that chewing and gnawing helps to keep those front teeth under control.
They prefer young plants, and although the damage they were claimed to have done to forests seems to have been exaggerated, they can certainly wreak havoc with crops.
What DON’T Squirrels Eat?
Good question! Like most of the rodents, squirrels are great foragers and opportunistic feeders. They gnaw through wood and plastic – is there anything they don’t eat.
Well yes, there are things squirrels prefer not to eat, and there other things that they will happily eat but shouldn’t. Let’s take a look at both groups.
Foods Squirrels Don’t Enjoy
There are a few foods squirrels don’t like and will avoid.
Alliums – onions, garlic and leeks. Squirrels avoid these so they can be useful to plant in areas you would like to keep squirrel-free.
Peppers and Chillies. Again, squirrels will avoid peppers and chillies. Chilli powder is often added to bird feed mixes as a squirrel deterrent.
Nyjer Seed. Though most birdseed goes down a storm with squirrels Nyjer seed is not a favourite. Good to know!
Food Squirrels Shouldn’t Eat.
Though there are a few foods that squirrels might find in their natural environment which are poisonous to them, they are adept at recognising and avoiding them. The real dietary hazards come from the food provided by humans – intentionally or accidentally.
Peanuts – peanuts and not nuts and are not suitable for squirrels. They are high in phosphates, making it hard for squirrels to metabolise calcium and cause bone disorders. Hedgehogs have a similar reaction.
Dairy – squirrels will happily chomp on a chunk of cheese given a chance. But it’s not good for them. And like much of our wildlife squirrels don’t do well with lactose or anything derived from cows milk.
Refined Sugar. Because squirrels love nuts, seeds grains and fruits some people are tempted to put breakfast cereals out for them to feed on.
Plain cereals like bran flakes, corn flakes, shredded wheat, will be fine, but most granolas and muesli are loaded with sugar which is just not good for wildlife.
Salt. Squirrels don’t do well with excessive salt, and much of our food is heavily salted. Salted peanuts, like all other peanuts, are a no-no for squirrels. So are crisps and other salty snacks.
How Much Do Squirrels Eat?
That depends on which sort they are.
Grey squirrels eat more. At first, this isn’t surprising because grey squirrels are bigger. But a grey will consume between 40 and 80gms of food per day, which is around 10% of their body weight.
On the other hand, a red squirrel eats an average of just 18 grams of food per day. Which is only 5% of their body weight.
And do Grey and Red Squirrels Have Different Diets?
Grey and red squirrels eat broadly the same types of food.
Reds prefer the seeds and buds of conifers because consider our forest is their natural habitat.
Greys are more fond of acorns, they evolved in broadleaf, deciduous woodland.
But both varieties can and do eat a wide range of foods. Like all rodents, they are opportunistic foragers.
As we’ve seen, the greys eat more. They also seem to eat a wider variety of foods. It’s been assumed that this broader diet has been part of their success. But reds seem no less keen to explore new foods if they get the chance. So maybe greys are just eating a broader diet because they are more widespread.
What’s All This About Burying Nuts?
Burying food stores is one of the squirrels signature behaviours. It’s widely believed that they do this to stock up on food for the winter. But this isn’t actually the case, they bury food all year round.
They also create fake larders. They dig holes that look like food holes but are actually empty to put other animals off the scent of their stores.
Squirrels don’t always remember where they left their stashes – greys seem to be better at remembering then reds. Buried seeds and acorns that are forgotten by squirrels will eventually take root and grow into new trees and plants. It’s an important natural species-spreading mechanism.
Should I Feed Squirrels?
If you are lucky enough to live in a part of the country where we still have red squirrels and have them in your garden, please do feed them. They need all the help they can get.
The grey squirrels common through most of the country definitely don’t need our help. They are classified as an invasive alien species and are a major contributing factor in the decline of our native reds.
So there is no need to feed grey squirrels.
If however, you have greys in your garden they can be difficult to get rid of. Feeding them may be one way of keeping them off your vegetables and bird food.
And the grey squirrel is a part of nature. It’s no her fault she’s in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We hope you’ve found this article interesting and useful. Do you have questions or suggestions? We’d love to hear them. Leave us a comment below.