Squirrels are small to medium-sized rodents that belong to the family Sciuridae. With over 200 species of squirrels distributed across the world, their diet can vary depending on the species, habitat, and availability of food resources. In general, squirrels are omnivorous creatures that primarily consume a plant-based diet, including nuts, seeds, fruits, and plant material. However, they will also occasionally eat insects, small vertebrates, and bird eggs. Here, we will discuss the various types of food that squirrels consume and how their diet can change based on their environment.
What does a squirrel eat?
- Nuts and seeds: Squirrels are well-known for their fondness for nuts and seeds, which are a crucial part of their diet. These high-energy, nutrient-dense food sources provide squirrels with essential fats, proteins, and carbohydrates needed for their survival. Examples of nuts and seeds commonly eaten by squirrels include acorns, hazelnuts, beechnuts, walnuts, pecans, hickory nuts, pine nuts, and sunflower seeds.
- Fruits and berries: Squirrels also consume various types of fruits and berries as part of their diet. These food items provide essential vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates that contribute to a squirrel’s overall health. Examples of fruits and berries squirrels may eat include apples, pears, cherries, plums, grapes, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, and mulberries.
- Plant material: Plant material is another significant component of a squirrel’s diet. They consume various parts of plants, including leaves, stems, buds, flowers, and bark. Tree squirrels, for example, have been known to eat the buds and flowers of maple, oak, and elm trees. Ground squirrels may consume a variety of grasses, forbs, and herbaceous plants found in their environment.
- Fungi: Squirrels have been observed eating fungi, such as mushrooms and truffles, which can be a valuable source of nutrients. Fungi provide squirrels with essential vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, and their consumption can help support a balanced diet.
- Insects and invertebrates: Although the majority of a squirrel’s diet consists of plant material, they will also occasionally eat insects and other invertebrates as a source of protein. Examples of insects and invertebrates consumed by squirrels include beetles, caterpillars, ants, and earthworms.
- Small vertebrates and bird eggs: Squirrels have been known to eat small vertebrates, such as birds, lizards, and rodents, as well as bird eggs, particularly when other food sources are scarce. This behavior is more common in ground squirrels, which are more likely to encounter these food items in their environment. However, it is important to note that this type of food makes up only a small portion of a squirrel’s overall diet.
- Human food and waste: In urban environments, squirrels may consume food discarded by humans, such as bread, crackers, and other processed foods. While this can provide an easily accessible food source for squirrels, it may not offer the same nutritional benefits as their natural diet and could potentially have negative impacts on their health.
Squirrels are opportunistic feeders, which means they will eat a wide variety of food items based on what is available in their environment. This adaptability allows squirrels to thrive in a range of habitats, including forests, grasslands, and urban areas. However, the availability of food resources can fluctuate throughout the year, and squirrels must adapt their diet accordingly.
In preparation for winter, when food resources are scarce, squirrels engage in a behavior called caching. They will collect and store food items, such as nuts and seeds, in various locations within their territory. This food hoarding behavior helps ensure that squirrels have a sufficient supply of food to sustain them during the colder months when their natural food sources may be limited or unavailable. Tree squirrels, for example, are known for their exceptional memory and can accurately recall the locations of their hidden caches, even months after storing them.
Some species of ground squirrels, such as the thirteen-lined ground squirrel and the California ground squirrel, hibernate during the winter months. In preparation for hibernation, these squirrels will consume large amounts of food to build up fat reserves that will sustain them throughout their period of dormancy. Before entering hibernation, they will also store food in their burrows to have a readily available supply once they emerge from hibernation in the spring.
The diet of squirrels can also change depending on their life stage. Juvenile squirrels, which are still growing and developing, may require a higher intake of protein and essential nutrients. As a result, they may consume more insects, invertebrates, and other protein-rich food sources compared to adult squirrels.
It is important to note that while squirrels are opportunistic feeders and can consume a wide range of food items, they require a balanced and varied diet to maintain optimal health. An adequate intake of essential nutrients, such as proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals, is crucial for a squirrel’s growth, reproduction, and overall well-being.
In conclusion, squirrels are omnivorous creatures with a diet that primarily consists of plant material, such as nuts, seeds, fruits, and plant parts, but also includes insects, invertebrates, and occasionally small vertebrates and bird eggs. Their diet can vary depending on factors such as species, habitat, food availability, and life stage. Squirrels are adaptable feeders that can adjust their diet according to environmental conditions and the availability of food resources, enabling them to thrive in a diverse range of habitats. Understanding the dietary habits and nutritional requirements of squirrels can help inform conservation efforts, habitat management strategies, and the sustainable coexistence of squirrels and humans in shared environments.