Squirrels are prey animals, which often end up as a meal for larger carnivores. Squirrels have a distinct role in nature, and part of this is providing sustenance for larger animals.
Squirrels are preyed upon by aerial and terrestrial animals and face various daily threats. Birds, including hawks and owls, attack them from the air, while snakes can be deadly enemies on the ground or in the trees. Mammals, including red and gray foxes, weasels, and mink, and larger mammals, such as black bears, feed on red and gray squirrels. Most surprisingly may be that the largemouth bass, a fish, also eats them.
Squirrels are beloved by many, but they also face a variety of predators. In this article, we explore the potential threats and look at the remarkable strategies squirrels use to fend off harm.
Types Of Predators
Squirrels face many predators in the wild, ranging from small to large. These include terrestrial and aerial predators and are one reason squirrels always look around them and appear nervous.
Some of their main predators include:
- Hawks and owls, which prey on squirrels, particularly young or juvenile squirrels
- Snakes, which prey on squirrels, particularly juvenile squirrels
- Foxes, raccoons, and domestic cats prey on squirrels and can significantly threaten squirrel populations in urban areas.
- Large carnivorous mammals like bears, wild dogs, and coyotes can also prey on squirrels in certain regions.
- Fish such as the largemouth bass
Almost all carnivorous animals will feed on squirrels if they can catch them, both from the air or on the ground.
The North American skies are home to several raptors that feed on small animals, including squirrels. The iconic red-tailed hawk is a common sight and frequently preys upon rodents and birds alike. The great horned owl adeptly captures its unsuspecting prey with its piercing eyesight, lethal talons, and sharp beak.
Certain mountainous areas play host to another prominent hunter, the golden eagle. Their prowess at taking out even larger game makes any passing woodland creature wary, and squirrels make up a large part of their diet.
Crows and magpies are highly opportunistic feeders, taking advantage of any meal they can get their claws on. They’ve been known to steal food from squirrels but will also prey on carrion, including squirrels.
The Red-shouldered hawk, Cooper’s hawk, Goshawk, and Barred Owl all make short work of squirrels, hunting them from the sky before pouncing.
Although uncommon, some reptiles have developed strategies to feast on squirrels. Snakes and lizards are known for hunting small mammals like rodents to survive. It is impressive that they can navigate the tricky task of tracking down an animal often found up in trees.
The black rat snake is an agile hunter whose range blankets much of the eastern United States. Equipped with impressive climbing skills, this nonvenomous constrictor can make its way up tree branches in pursuit of small mammals as prey- including squirrels. With strength and speed on their side, these snakes are well suited to fulfill a top predator role within ecosystems across America’s eastern states.
The presence of snakes ensures that squirrels must always stay vigilant. The timber snake and Diamondback rattlesnake are also deadly enemies of the Eastern Gray squirrel.
Gila monsters, a venomous lizard species inhabiting the southwestern United States and Northern Mexico, are known for their sluggish movement. Despite egg-based diets being dominant in this reptilian creature’s diet pattern, occasionally, Gila monsters will also prey on small mammals, including squirrels.
Both large and small carnivorous mammals make up a large part of the predators that attack squirrels.
North America is home to two unique species of foxes that can climb. They eat squirrels and employ specific hunting methods to catch them, namely, climbing trees or jumping between branches with amazing agility.
Raccoons are found throughout North America and are known to eat squirrels. They are opportunistic feeders and will eat various foods, including fruits, nuts, and small mammals.
Bobcats are a prominent part of North American wildlife, often seen feasting on squirrels and other small mammals. However, these nimble predators have an expansive diet that includes birds and reptiles.
Coyotes are vital components of North America’s diverse wildlife ecosystem. Found throughout the continent, these omnivorous mammals are flexible in their diets. Squirrels and fruits, nuts, and other small mammals make up part of their diet.
Weasels, marten, mink, and fishers are found throughout North America, all eat squirrels. They are small, agile, and able to climb trees.
Domestic cats are also known to eat squirrels if they can catch them.
Dogs will also attack squirrels, although you can often see squirrels outrunning even the fastest dogs in the park.
Man-Made Predators Of Squirrels
Squirrels face many threats in the wild, but our actions are more dangerous than their natural counterparts. Accidental or purposeful activities from humans can be particularly damaging to squirrel populations.
The presence of cars presents a significant danger to squirrels, as they are one of the most commonly encountered man-made threats. Squirrels’ tendency to cross roads or get startled by vehicles can lead them into dangerous situations, leaving many dead on the road.
Inadvertently, people can put squirrels at risk with their actions, even if they are well-intentioned. Unintentionally leaving food and trash out may attract the creatures to danger, where they can become easy prey for pets such as cats and dogs.
Around towns and cities, the presence of squirrels can often be seen as an unwelcome problem. This has led to some people taking extreme measures, such as trapping or even deliberately killing them.
Loss of habitat due to new buildings can also lead to problems for squirrels. With much of their habitat taken away, they have to look for new territories, leading to potential encounters with predators.
Our human activity can wreak havoc on squirrels, making it essential to be aware of our actions and intervene to promote their safety.
How Do Squirrels Defend Themselves?
Squirrels are ingenious in avoiding predators, and these usually involve running, climbing and communication.
Squirrels can run fast, with the Eastern Gray squirrel clocking up an impressive 32 km/h. Squirrels are also excellent climbers and will climb trees for safety, something you often see when being chased by a dog.
Foxes are one of their main predators, and while the red fox can run faster than a squirrel, up to 50 km/h, squirrels are more agile and can climb trees quickly to escape.
Squirrels are one of the most agile animals and can climb trees quickly. They have been seen climbing trees at speeds up to 20 km/h, faster than most predators. However, black bears can climb trees very quickly, and while they are not as agile, they can easily outclimb a squirrel.
Black bears can only climb short distances but can climb 100 feet in 30 seconds, an impressive 110 km/h over short distances.
Snakes are one of the most deadly predators for a squirrel in a tree. The Western rat snake, found west of the Mississippi, can harm squirrels, especially the larger ones, which can grow up to almost 2.5 meters.
Squirrels also use different vocalizations to alert others to safety. The screeching sound that a squirrel uses is a way of threatening any intruders to leave the area. Another sound a squirrel makes is the alarm call, also known as the warning call.
If a squirrel notices a predator in the vicinity, it will make sounds to signal the impending danger to other squirrels in the area. These sounds are different depending on if the predator is aerial or terrestrial.
When the predator is nearby and approaching a squirrel territory, the squirrel will start making warning calls. These are described as a series of barking calls. These sounds can be a ‘buzz,’ a quick sound emitted through the nostrils. These sounds are very low-intensity and almost inaudible to us.
The following warning sound made by the squirrel sounds like ‘kuk.’ The ‘kuk’ is a short bark made repeatedly. The ‘kuk’ is followed by the sound of ‘quia.’ This is more of an extended version of the ‘quaa’ sound and is of lower intensity. The eastern gray squirrel also makes these types of sounds.
The North American red squirrel prefers a sound of ‘seet’ and a ‘bark’ as its alarm calls. The barks are generally loud and have high amplitude. On the other hand, ‘seets’ are sounds with a high frequency but low amplitude.
Their tail can also be used as an effective decoy by creating movement and diverting attention. In any event, these creatures possess unique defense mechanisms that help them survive in their environment.
To protect themselves from predators, they will use their sharp claws and make loud noises or chatter with their teeth to show that they are not helpless targets.
When feeling incredibly threatened, some squirrels resort to a unique form of self-defense: freezing. This tactic is typically used as an absolute last measure when the animal faces imminent danger and has few alternatives for escape. They can stay still for a remarkably long time, staying in place to avoid being spotted by a nearby predator.
Impact Of Predators On Squirrels’ Populations
Predators play a significant role in the health of squirrel populations. Where predators are abundant, their presence can be an essential factor in limiting how many squirrels live in that area.
Predators can cause drastic behavioral changes in squirrels, who typically respond with defensive maneuvers such as fleeing or hiding. They may also employ an alarm call to alert other squirrels and provide a collective defense against potential threats.
Predators can significantly impact squirrel populations, with larger predator densities leading to smaller populations and different habitat choices. This strategy may protect them from attack but comes at a cost; fewer breeding pairs means reduced population numbers in the long term.
How Squirrels Adapt To Predators
Squirrels are especially quick to adapt to predators. Among their strategies, they often avoid open fields where they risk being targeted by hunters, instead finding refuge in trees.
To increase their chances of survival, squirrels stay near safety. They also can recognize potential predators quickly, emitting loud vocalizations as a warning signal for those nearby.
When threatened, squirrels use their agility and cunning to outsmart predators. They constantly adjust their behavior and can be seen running zigzag patterns or hiding in tiny crevices to elude a pursuer, demonstrating an impressive capacity for adapting quickly in hazardous situations.
Squirrels can be seen constantly looking around them and appearing nervous. This is to help them minimize the chance of missing a predator and ending up as a meal.
Squirrels are remarkable for their ability to adjust and endure various circumstances. By cleverly utilizing tactics such as vigilant behavior, they can evade predators and sustain themselves even when the odds seem against them.
Role Of Predators In Squirrels’ Ecosystems
Predators are essential for maintaining the delicate balance of squirrel populations in their habitats. By preying upon sick or inferior individuals, predators ensure that only robust and healthy animals remain to thrive within their environment, a process that ultimately safeguards the overall health of each species’ population and provides food sources for other wildlife.
Squirrels are particularly vulnerable due to their small size compared with many of their predators. As such, they commonly fall prey to larger hunters like coyotes, foxes, birds such as hawks and owls, and snakes.
Predator species play a critical role in maintaining balance within the squirrel population. Without them, exponential growth could occur, overcrowding and making food unavailable.
Predators play an essential role in preserving the well-being and vitality of squirrels’ ecosystems. By controlling their population, these animals ensure that nature remains healthy for future generations.
Squirrels experience a variety of threats in their natural habitats, including hawks, snakes, and even pets such as cats and dogs. Unfortunately, humans are also quick to consider this small mammal prey, either through hunting or trapping, as an attempt at pest control.
Squirrels are remarkable survivors due to their agility and adaptability. They quickly construct nests in various environments as havens from predators while storing food for sustenance. Their amazing survival ability has seen them triumph over the harshest conditions.
References and Further Reading
BAKKEN, A. 1959. Behavior of gray squirrels. Proceedings of the Southeastern Association of Game and Fish Commissioners, 13:393-406.
BARKALOW, F. S., JR., AND M. SHORTEN. 1973. The world of the gray squirrel. J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, 160 pp.
DILL, L. M., AND R. HOUTMAN. 1989. The influence of distance to refuge on flight initiation distance in the gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). Canadian Journal of Zoology, 67:233-235.
HALL, E. R. 1981. The mammals of North America. John Wiley and Sons, New York, 1:1-600 + 90
Mammalian Species Sciurus carolinensis No. 480, pp. 1-9,3 figs.
Squirrels by Richard Thomas, in the “Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior” edited by Michael Breed and Janice Moore (2010)
Urban Mammals: A Concise Guide by Richard Thomas (2015)
Squirrels: The Animal Answer Guide by Richard Thomas (2010)
Mammals of North America by Ronald M. Nowak (1999)
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.