Why Do Squirrels Nip Off Branches – What’s REALLY Happening?

Why Do Squirrels Nip Off Branches – What’s REALLY Happening?

The fox squirrel dashed up the tree, its little claws scrambling on the rough bark. Reaching the top, it stopped and looked around before nipping off a small branch. So why do squirrels nip off branches?

Because eating tree bark can help protect squirrels from certain diseases, reduce stress levels, and keep their teeth healthy. Let’s dig in and answer this question in more detail and discover what benefits squirrels get from tree bark.

What is the Stuff that Makes up Tree Bark?

Tree bark is the rough outer covering that makes up the outside of the tree and causes it to look the way it does. Tree bark is very diverse, and each type of tree has a different type of bark.

Each type of tree has its own unique mix of vital elements embedded in its cellulose bark making it unique. Squirrels rely on bark as a substantial portion of their diet, particularly during the winter season. Up to 40% of their diet may consist of tree bark.

why do squirrels nip off branches - fox squirrel perched on tree trunk
Fox Squirrel on Tree Trunk

Do Squirrels Eat Tree Bark?

Do squirrels eat tree bark? Sure, squirrels eat tree bark to help maintain a healthy diet. The nutritional benefits of eating bark include a higher concentration of minerals and vitamins compared to other foods, like grass.

If a tree contains sap, squirrels get the added benefit of the sap’s nutrients. Here are some of the nutrients that squirrels need in their diet.

Selenium and Zinc – keep the immune system strong

Vitamin C – reduce the risk of getting a respiratory infection (helpful during the winter months)

Vitamin E – to keep the heart healthy and maintain healthy skin

Calcium – strengthen their bones and teeth by offering a squirrel a cuttlebone.

Potassium – overall health and keep their nervous system functioning

Iron – help make red blood cells which carry oxygen

You can offer a squirrel a calcium supplement to chew on like a cuttlebone. The same kind you would give to a parakeet.

Discover Cuttlebones on Amazon

To Prevent Disease

Scientists think that eating tree bark can help protect squirrels from certain diseases. The bark of certain trees, like the cedar, contains natural compounds that can kill bacteria and fungi. By eating small amounts of bark, squirrels may be able to ward off infection.

To Mark their Territory

Squirrels are very selective about the trees they choose to gnaw on, and each gnaw mark is a signal to other squirrels about who owns that tree.

You may have seen pictures of large Eastern Grey Squirrels with impressive gnaw marks that go all the way around the trunk of the tree. These marks can be up to 5 feet tall and are created by the same process as their smaller marks.

To Maintain their Ever-Growing Teeth

Squirrels must maintain their ever-growing incisors. As these teeth grow, they must gnaw on something to keep them from becoming too long and getting in the way which could cause a slow and painful death from malocclusion.

The fiber in the bark acts like a toothpaste and helps remove plaque. — helping to clean and condition the squirrels’ teeth.

When squirrels are under stress, their bodies release hormones that can actually damage their teeth. Chewing on bark may help relieve some of this stress and protect their teeth.

why do squirrels nip off branches - Eastern grayquirrel looking up showing teeth
Eastern Gray Squirrel

To Help Build Their Nests

Squirrels make nests that are called dreys, these dreys can vary in size and can be made out of a variety of different materials including twigs, leaves, moss, bark, and nipped-off branches depending on what’s available. 

Using nipped-off branches is helpful because the branches help to insulate the nests from cold winds. Squirrels use branches and twigs to create a basket, this basket becomes the foundation of the nest and is a major structural element.

Once the drey is completed, the squirrels will often collect the discarded bark and use it to line the floor of their drey/nest. By collecting this bark and laying it on the floor of the nest, the squirrels can keep their young warm and protected.

They then use softer materials on top of the branches and twigs. As the young grow, they will stay in the nest for an extended period of time.

Relief for a Stressed Squirrel

Chewing on wood is thought to have a calming effect on a stressed squirrel. The act of chewing helps to release endorphins, which have a calming effect and act as a source of comfort and security.

Sherman’s Fox Squirrel

For Food

When food becomes scarce, especially during the winter months, squirrels have less access to the foods that they would usually eat. If foods like berries, seeds, and nuts start to deplete, the squirrel will start to look for other sources of food. A squirrel will remove the branches off of a tree to gain access to the cambium layer. This is the tissue layer that houses the cells needed for plant growth. This layer is rich in nutrients and sugars.

Is it Safe for Squirrels to Eat Tree Bark?

Yes, eating tree bark is safe for squirrels. They can break down and digest the cellulose in tree bark. Cellulose is a form of sugar found in plants that is impossible for most animals to digest. However, squirrels have a unique adaptation that allows them to eat cellulose.

An enzyme in their diet called cellulase helps break down cellulose, and scientists have discovered that squirrels get this enzyme from eating lichen, a combination of algae and fungi that grows on trees, rocks, and walls. Lichen contains the nutrient selenium which we learned earlier helps keep the immune systems strong.

Squirrels Favorite Tree

A squirrel’s favorite tree in no particular order is oak, beech, and maple trees because they are especially high in sugar, fat, and minerals. Because of the broad variety of nutrients and fiber, tree bark is a great snack for squirrels.

why do squirrels nip off branches - fox squirrel white morph on tree branch
Fox Squirrel – White Morph

Squirrel Damage to Trees

Occasionally, you may notice some squirrel damage to trees. They may choose to chew on your tree trunks and while their sharp teeth may not demolish a fully grown tree, their teeth can have a severe impact on younger, weaker trees.

The strips and openings that they create by stripping trees can come with the side effect of welcoming insect infestations and other harmful parasites into the trees.

Ants, termites, birds, and some microorganisms can gain easy access to vital and more vulnerable parts of trees when the hard outer bark is stripped away by our furry friends.

Advantages of Having Squirrels in Your Trees

It’s worthwhile to keep squirrels around for several reasons. First, squirrels dig holes in the ground and help aerate the soil around trees, thus benefiting tree roots.

Both trees and humans benefit from a squirrels’ appetite for pesky insects and bugs.

Squirrels also provide some entertainment value with their zany antics and if you really think about it, a free tree pruning service.

Free Tree-Pruning Service

Do you have a tree in your yard that needs pruning, but you don’t have the equipment or skills needed to prune your trees? Then you may want to consider enlisting the help of a neighborhood squirrel.

Squirrels can be great allies in pruning your trees. They’re small enough to get into those hard-to-reach places, but they’re also smart enough to know when to cut a branch. Plus, they don’t require any equipment!

To get the most out of your squirrel pruners, you’ll want to make sure they have the right snacks to attract them. You don’t need anything fancy, and you might be surprised at how quickly a squirrel comes along to eat your offerings and prune your trees for free!

why do squirrels nip off branches - Eastern grayquirrelon branch with berries
Eastern Gray Squirrel

How to Stop Squirrels from Stripping Bark

As a rule of thumb, it’s not advisable to cut off branches where squirrels nest. You may end up harming their young. There are other, safer ways to keep squirrels away from your trees. You can learn more on how to stop squirrels from stripping bark in the following article Keep Squirrels Away from Your Fruit Trees.

Squirrel Ya Later

So, there you have it, whatever the reason, it’s clear that tree bark plays an important role in squirrels’ lives.
To answer your question as to why do squirrels nip off branches? Because tree bark is good for their health!

So, next time you see a squirrel nibbling on a branch, don’t be surprised.

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