When crip fall evenings turn into blistering cold nights, wildlife scurries to find a warm, safe spot to escape the snow and biting temperatures. Generally, winter landscapes look rather bleak, with very little wildlife to be seen. Though, sometimes, you’ll see the occasional bushy-tailed squirrel hopping through snow up to their whiskers, which may lead you to wonder, “do squirrels hibernate?”.
In this article, we’ll be discussing the habits of squirrels during the winter, and if squirrels hibernate.
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What is Hibernation?
What is hibernation, and why do some animals do it?
When people think of hibernation, what usually comes to mind is a cuddly bear curled away in a cave sleeping the winter days away — but hibernation in animals isn’t simply sleeping for the long-term. Hibernation is a way for animals to conserve energy and sustain themselves during the winter when the food supply is scarce.
During hibernation, a hibernator’s body will change significantly by slowing down all of its energy-expending systems, sometimes to a complete stop for more than an hour. This includes slowing down the heart rate, the breathing (which may stop totally for an hour or so in smaller hibernators), and overall body temperature.
Hibernating animals are by large warm-blooded, meaning their body temperature can be regulated internally. Eating an abundance of food before the winter and “fattening up”, joined with the energy-saving effects of hibernation, will keep hibernating animals alive until food becomes more available.
Do All Squirrels Hibernate?
Not all squirrels hibernate, which is why you’ll see squirrels scarcely throughout the winter landscape. Tree squirrels such as Fox Squirrels, and Gray and Red Squirrels don’t hibernate, but they will hunker in their nests or crevices in trees much more often than they would during the warmer months. The majority of squirrel species are not hibernators — only one type of squirrel actually hibernates in the winter.
Before we dive into which type of squirrel hibernates, we’ll be taking a look at the habits of most squirrel species in the winter, along with how they prepare for the harsh winter months.
Non-Hibernating Squirrels and Preparation for Winter
While some species of squirrels do hibernate, the majority of squirrel species do not. So how do these non-hibernating squirrels prepare for and survive the harsh winter environments? If you’ve ever watched a squirrel pack their cheeks with acorns, or watched as they buried a stash of nuts and seeds, you may have wondered what they’re doing.
From Summer, through Fall, squirrels will stash nuts and seeds underground or in trees in order to have a supply that will last them throughout the winter. They will also bury acorns and nuts in different locations to confuse potential furry thieves that may be watching. A squirrel’s last line of defense is fattening up. If they lose their food stashes to other squirrels or forgetfulness, they’ll have some extra body fat to substitute for the lack of food supply.
Habits of Squirrels During the Winter
Though most squirrels don’t hibernate, they will still hunker down in their nests, or holes in trees to stay out of the elements. Occasionally, when the snowfall has halted or melted away, you’ll see a squirrel or two hopping around on the cold ground, perhaps in search of a hidden stash of acorns from last Spring.
Tree squirrels, such as the gray squirrel, are generally loners, but if the winter is particularly difficult, a pair of squirrels may bunk together in a warm pile of leaves inside of a tree to keep warm. If a squirrel or family of squirrels are having a hard time nesting in trees outdoors, you can even find them in your attic, sheds, and barns for extra protection.
In areas with particularly harsh winters in which natural water sources freeze over, a tree squirrel will eat snow to stay hydrated. Some homeowners will purchase a heated birdbath to provide an easy source of water to backyard squirrels.
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The Squirrels That Hibernate
As briefly mentioned above, there is only one group of squirrels that hibernates out of over 200 squirrel species: the ground squirrel. Ground squirrels include Ground Hogs, California Ground Squirrels, Chip Munks, Marmots, and the Arctic Ground Squirrel.
Ground squirrels can be identified by their general small ears that are flattened to the head, their lighter coloration, and their burrows. These squirrels are also mainly located in rocky, mountainous, or desert regions, and live together in families or large groups.
So, how do these types of squirrels prepare for hibernation?
Ground Squirrels and Hibernation Preparation
During the summer, Ground Squirrels will prepare for the upcoming winter months by feasting on green foliage, insects, wild berries, and budding plants. Actually, they’ll eat so much that their weight practically doubles in order to sustain them over cold periods.
Ground squirrels can dig around 6 feet deep, and will dig horizontally a few feet to make their burrow. This act of digging a few feet away from the entrance protects them from any snow, wind, or other elements that may fall into the hole. It also acts as an insulated area to retain heat. Ground squirrels may pack their burrows with foliage to create a warm nest.
Some ground squirrels are light hibernators and on warmer winter days, will arise from their slumber to forage for nearby food or water before going back to “sleep”.
So, do squirrels hibernate?
Some do! While most tree squirrels will simply spend their time munching on buried acorns and huddling together in a leaf-filled tree crevice, Ground Squirrels do major preparation in the months leading up to winter to sleep the snowy days away safe and sound. If you don’t have any Ground Squirrels where you live, be sure to help your local tree squirrels out by providing adequate food and water sources for them to use in case of winter hardship!
We hope our guide to hibernating squirrels has been helpful!