Squirrels have a superb level of endurance against cold weather, and some squirrels can withstand sub-degree weather. But how is this possible? What happens when the frigid winter temperatures drop? Most mammals have extra layers of fat to help them endure cold temperatures. Do squirrels rely on fat stores, or do they have other ways to help them live through the winter? Here is what we found to help explain the answer to where do squirrels go in the winter.
Where Do Squirrels Go in the Winter: Survival Methods
Since squirrels don’t migrate to warmer weather, their priority is to survive. Sleeping and eating take up most of the squirrel’s time in the winter.
To survive the winter, squirrels spend most of their time eating and sleeping in their nest with little activity.
How Do Squirrels Stay Warm All Year Around?
A squirrel’s body temperature is controlled by its metabolism. The metabolism is how much energy the animal uses to keep its body functioning.
When it gets cold out, the squirrels’ bodies slow down, so they don’t use as much energy and start burning fat reserves. This slows down their metabolism and keeps them warmer than if they were active when it’s cold out.
When it warms up again, their metabolisms speed back up, and they warm up faster than they would if they had been active while it was cold out.
By staying active and keeping their metabolisms running at normal levels, they stay warmer in the winter.
How Do Squirrels Stay Warm in the Winter?
Squirrels have several adaptations that help them stay warm in cold weather. They have thick fur that helps insulate them from the cold and a layer of fat beneath their skin that provides additional warmth. Squirrels build up their fat stores by eating a lot in the fall.
You will also see some squirrels that have ears with long hair tufts that look like built-in earmuffs.
Their tails are also very furry and bushy, helping them keep them warm by trapping heat close to their bodies. Nests and dens are often shared with other squirrels during the winter.
They benefit from each other’s warm body temperature by huddling together. During warmer months, they usually don’t share nests with other adult squirrels.
They also spend a lot of time in trees, protecting them from the wind and cold. Squirrels store food in their nests, so they only have to venture out every few days to retrieve food hidden away earlier in the year.
Tree Squirrels Do Not Hibernate
Tree squirrels do not hibernate. They maintain a constant body temperature throughout the seasons and enter a dormant state in the winter. A dormant state means they are inactive for long periods, which is different from hibernating animals’ extended length of time.
Why Do Squirrels Build Nests in High Trees
Squirrels build nests in high trees to protect themselves from predators like foxes and coyotes. Although squirrels prefer to live in dens, which are tree holes sometimes left by woodpeckers or natural causes.
Dens provide better shelter than a drey because it protects against predators and extreme weather conditions. If there is a shortage of nests or dens, squirrels can get highly territorial and fight for their spot in the nest.
What Does A Squirrel Nest Look Like
A squirrel nest, also called a drey, looks much like a bird’s nest. A squirrel’s nest is much larger than a bird’s nest. In the wild, nests are built out of branches, twigs, dried leaves, bark strips, mosses, and grasses.
Squirrels’ nests sit 20 feet (6 m) or higher. A squirrel chooses a fork or nook of a tree that serves as the foundation. The tree fork is a solid and supportive foundation to keep the squirrels safe and secure while sleeping. Squirrels living in urban areas are known to take stuffing to warm their nest, from items like outdoor furniture cushions, dog beds, and blankets.
Squirrels are very serious about building a proper nest because if it is not well insulated, a squirrel can freeze to death.
Where Do Squirrels Go in the Winter: Squirrel Preparation
A Fluffy Fur Coat
All squirrels develop a thicker coat for the winter, and some grow long tufts of ear hair like the Abert and red squirrels. But a rock squirrel has a winter superpower.
Do Rock Squirrels Hibernate?
The rock squirrel can thermoregulate. One way a rock squirrel can thermoregulate is through its fur coat. During the winter, their coat seems to absorb more solar heat because changes in the wind speed directly affect the squirrel’s coat structure.
During the colder months of the year, rock squirrels hibernate. In southern areas, they may not hibernate at all. These squirrels can withstand long periods without water; some can last as long as 100 days without water.
Squirrel Cache – Don’t Forget the Snacks
A squirrel cache is a type of food storage that squirrels create to store food for later consumption. Squirrels will collect nuts and other food items and store them in a hidden location, typically underground. When they need food, they will retrieve the food from their cache.
Grey squirrels have multiple food caches in case one becomes compromised or ruined.
A squirrel midden is a collection of materials that a squirrel has gathered and stored for later use. This includes nuts, seeds, bark, leaves, and twigs. A midden is a massive-sized cache similar to a garbage heap of food scraps or a food pantry.
When a squirrel needs something, it can go to its midden and retrieve it. The red squirrel will defend its food stash or midden aggressively and violently through the winter.
Squirrels are not the only animals that create and use middens. Many other animals, including birds, chipmunks, and rabbits, also build middens. These structures serve various purposes, including providing food storage, a place to hide from predators, and a way to mark territory.
Grey squirrels have multiple food caches in case one becomes compromised or ruined.
Do Squirrels Get Fat for the Winter?
Do squirrels get fat for the winter? Depending on what area of the world and species, squirrels can add up to 50% fat. To build the fat stores, squirrels consume a mass amount of food in the Fall right before the winter months.
Sharing is Caring
To keep their core temperatures regulated, they tend to stay close to each other and share a nest or den. Another way to keep warm is to shiver, which generates body heat.
An exciting discovery is that a black squirrel, one version of a melanistic grey squirrel, is more efficient at creating and retaining body heat than other squirrels.
Where Do Squirrels Go in the Winter – Ground Squirrel Hibernation
Ground squirrels hibernate, lowering body temperature, slowing brain activity, and reducing heart rate. Not all scientific literature agrees on animals with the longest and deepest hibernation process. One squirrel is a pro at a very long hibernation the Arctic Ground Squirrel. The squirrel spends 7-9 months underground in a burrow in deep hibernation.
Their body temperature drops to almost 5 degrees below freezing, an astonishing 26.7 degrees F (2.9 degrees C). This phenomenon, known as supercooling, allows the squirrel’s blood to remain liquid and not freeze. In simple terms, the matter that can freeze or crystalize is filtered from the blood to keep it flowing.
Not All Hibernation is the Same
Again, not all ground squirrels hibernate, but the time and length of hibernation vary for those that do. The California Ground squirrel usually hibernates, but some do not in areas where the winters are not severe.
For instance, the Richardson ground squirrel will awake for a few hours at a time during hibernation. When awake, the squirrel raises its body temperature for 1-2 hours. After bringing its body temperature back to normal, the squirrel will immediately drop it again and return to hibernation.
The Risk of Hibernation
Hibernation has its risks. There is a possibility the squirrel’s body temperature drops so low that it may not ever wake up. Take a look at this video of an artic squirrel right after hibernation.
Would You Like To Give Your Squirrels a Home?
If you worry about how your squirrels in the backyard will make it through the winter, you can provide a squirrel family with a nesting box. Take a look at this squirrel home from Back2NatureWood. The house is made of thick, quality pine wood and sealed with an Eco-friendly sealer for durability. Your backyard squirrels will surely appreciate the coziness, warmth, and safety from predators this house provides.
Final Thoughts on Where Do Squirrels Go in the Winter?
Squirrels are complex animals that are surprisingly able to survive extreme weather conditions. The winter weather proves challenging, but squirrels survive in many ways, like growing fluffy coats, building fat stores, lying dormant, shivering, and hibernating.
Hibernation is fascinating because the squirrel’s body goes through complicated biological changes to slow its heart rate, lower body temperature, and supercool the blood. Frankly, a squirrel’s ability to survive the winter is exceptionally complex and captivating.