Many animals hibernate during the cold winter months, but one species seems to hang around all year: squirrels. When the landscape is bare and blanketed in snow, you may find yourself wondering just where do squirrels go in the winter?
While certain species of squirrels do hibernate, most remain in nests to stay warm, emerging only at midday to dig up their stored food. Some places you might find a squirrel nest include tree cavities, nest boxes, burrows, garages, attics, chimneys, dryer vents, crawl spaces, and under car hoods.
Squirrels in the wild will opt for natural nest sites like tree cavities and burrows, but urban squirrels are likely to seek other areas to find shelter from the cold, wind, and snow, including your home. Read on to discover what our fuzzy neighbors get up to throughout the winter!
How Do Squirrels Survive The Winter?
As crisp fall air begins to creep in at the end of a long, hot summer, you will probably begin to notice the squirrels in your yard or local parks beginning to, well, fill out.
Squirrels are small mammals, and though they are quite hardy creatures, they do need to prepare for the cold winter months ahead by storing energy as body fat.
You may find yourself wondering, just what does a squirrel get up to in the winter time?
While some species of ground squirrels do hibernate, most squirrels actually remain relatively active throughout the winter months.
They spend autumn storing food and building nests in whatever warm, dry place they can find, then hunker down in the winter months, emerging only at midday to find their food.
Squirrels Prepare For Winter By Gathering Food
We have all seen the cartoon squirrel protecting its hoards of nuts hidden deep within a tree’s cavity. While this image is rooted in truth, the reality is that squirrels are actually much more clever in disguising and protecting their food stores.
Squirrels subsist on a wide variety of food. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, squirrels will eat anything from roots, berries, and nuts to mushrooms, insects, and even bird eggs when they can manage to steal them from the nest.
The term “squirreling away” comes from the characteristic behavior of scatter-hoarding, or the systematic spreading out of food throughout the animal’s territory. Squirrels engage in this behavior by burying or storing small amounts of nuts and seeds in different locations around the nest site.
By spreading out their food, there is less risk for another rival squirrel or other animals to find and consume all of their winter stores.
Squirrels have even been observed pretending to bury food in one place, only to move it to another in order to throw off competitors. Sneaky!
Squirrels are opportunists, and will take anything they can, so make sure to keep your own food storage locked away.
Similarly, squirrels are curious creatures, and can become acclimated to humans. Once you feed a squirrel, you will have made a friend for life. They will return time and time again looking for more handouts.
In general, avoid getting into a habit of feeding squirrels, especially by hand, as they may carry diseases and pests that could transmit to humans.
Ground Squirrels Hibernate
The University of California states that there are some species of ground squirrels that actually do hibernate. Hibernation is a common behavior among animals who live in harsh winter climates.
A hibernating squirrel will have spent late summer to autumn eating and storing as much as it can to build up enough fat for up to eight months of hibernation.
Deep sleep is triggered by the changes in weather, so the squirrel needs to be prepared by the time winter comes.
Ground squirrels, as their name suggests, nest in burrows underground. Burrows insulate them from the cold weather, and protect them from predators.
Most Squirrels Build Nests And Rely On Food Storage
Although hibernation seems like a good option to make it through the long winter, most squirrels actually remain active throughout the season.
Instead, they seek out safe places to build nests and hide their extensive food storage, only emerging at midday to access it.
Mammal nests are called dreys, and consist of leaves, twigs, shredded tree bark, moss, and other materials, as described by Oregon State University.
Squirrels are well adapted to urban life though, and can use items like insulation, discarded clothing, or other soft materials when they can find them.
During the summer months, these dreys can be found more out in the open, usually in the crook of a tree limb or hollow, but squirrels require more protection from the colder weather. Squirrels will seek out more protected, warm sites for winter nests.
Common Places Where Squirrels Nest In The Winter
Since we’ve got that brief overview out of the way – lets kick off where some of the places that offer squirrels shelter – most commonly in or near your home.
Keep reading to discover 9 places you might find an overwintering squirrel!
1. Squirrels Will Go In a Tree Cavity
One of the most common places you will find squirrels in the wild is in a tree hollow, according to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Although they prefer live trees, they may also utilize snags, or the standing remains of dead trees to nest in as well.
These hollows are usually the result of a woodpecker or other bird who has previously used the site. Once the owner moves out, squirrels take advantage of this real estate by moving in and creating safe and protected nests within the tree.
These cavities are excellent places to build a nest, and this is recognized by many animals. For this reason, the squirrel may be in competition for these sites with owls and other mammals.
If you have trees with cavities on your property, you may just find a squirrel living within it through the winter.
In urban areas, leftover trees are usually removed due to the danger of falling limbs to nearby buildings, cars, and people, so you are less likely to encounter a snag in the city.
2. Squirrels Will Nestle in Nest Boxes
Nest boxes are installed by bird enthusiasts and nature lovers throughout many urban environments.
Being so, these nest boxes are built to house all kinds of birds and bats, and squirrels will take advantage of them all.
Most birds will build their nests in early spring. Since squirrels will be looking for a safe space to build their nests for mating season in late January, they can take advantage of these boxes before the birds have the chance to find them.
If you have nest boxes and you want to reserve them for avian friends, you may want to consider moving them into storage until the species returns to the area after winter migration.
Another thing you can do is to keep your nest boxes out more in the open, rather than tucked into dark corners of your property, to discourage use by squirrels.
You may not mind a mammalian tenant in your nest box during the winter though, in which case you can purposely set them out on your property for squirrels to take advantage of.
3. Squirrels Will Dig Burrows In Your Yard
Ground squirrels create their own burrows in which they build their nests, but other species of squirrels may also take advantage of underground holes and tunnels to stay safe and warm throughout the winter.
Similarly to tree cavities, squirrels will likely take advantage of existing burrows when choosing their winter homes. Common sources of burrows are moles, gofers, or even dogs who like to dig.
Squirrels are wary of predators and competition, though, and won’t likely make their nest where another animal is present.
Luckily, squirrels are adept at avoiding predation, quickly escaping by scampering across the ground and up trees, utility poles, and power lines, out of reach of less agile animals.
We have covered most of the natural homes squirrels will use. But because squirrels are very adapted to urban habitats, we must discuss the many different places squirrels might nest throughout winter in the city or suburbs.
4. Squirrels Will Nest In Your Garage
Garages offer many amenities to a squirrel in the wintertime. Garages are safe and protected from elements like cold, wind, rain, and snow.
They also usually have plenty of places to hide a nest. From storage boxes and shelving, to yard tools and equipment, a garage has many nooks and crannies that are perfect places to build a nest.
It may take some time to notice that a squirrel has moved into your garage, as many of the tools and stored items will not be used until spring. You will want to make sure that there are no small cracks and holes through which a squirrel could enter.
Squirrels are notorious chewers, and if you find one in your garage, you should check all of the exposed wires, insulation, or boxes to make sure they haven’t nibbled their way through your belongings.
This would also be a great time to check the batteries in your smoke detector, especially if the squirrels have gotten into wires, cords, and plugs.
Make sure to block squirrels from coming inside! Here are ways squirrels get into your house (and how to get them out.)
5. Squirrels Can Overwinter In Your Attic
Attics have similar advantages to (and are much less frequently visited than) garages, making them an ideal home for a squirrel in the winter.
Squirrels may enter your attic through small cracks or holes in your roof or siding, chewing through the material until they have made a big enough opening.
You should inspect your attic regularly to ensure there are no compromised areas they could exploit to gain entry. Check your attic during the day, leaving the lights off so that you can see light shining through.
Like your garage, attics have many small crevices that make a perfect place to nest through the winter. Many attics also have exposed insulation, which makes an efficient, warm nesting material.
If you are looking to evict a squirrel from your attic, it is best to consult an expert who can remove the animal safely and professional contractors who can close off any holes in your home.
Preventative measures can be taken, such as the use of repellent products like SUAVEC Squirrel Repellent which utilize strong smells like peppermint oil and other essential oils to make your home less appealing to the sensitive nose of a squirrel.
Alternatively, you can use some of the other scents that squirrels hate to repel them before they enter!
6. Squirrels Will Enter And Nest In Your Chimney
An open chimney can appear very appealing to a squirrel, and they may mistake it for an ideal winter home.
However, chimneys can prove dangerous dwellings for squirrels and other animals because their main function is to heat your home with fire.
A squirrel may enter a chimney during the winter and end up getting stuck behind a closed flue. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife also warns that a metal-lined chimney will trap a squirrel, unlike a brick or otherwise textured chimney, but it may have made itself at home without realizing the danger.
You can help a squirrel out of your chimney by opening the flue and catching it in the fireplace, or by lowering a weighted rope down and waiting, but there is a risk that you could contract a disease from the squirrel if bitten.
For this reason, it is best to consult an expert pest control technician in your area to safely remove a squirrel.
A great preventative measure you can take is to cap your chimney with something like this Cone Top Chimney Cap before any animals have the chance to mistake it for their new home. Take care to find the chimney cap that is the right size and shape for your home.
If a squirrel does get in your home, do not fear! Here’s what to do if you find a squirrel in your house.
7. Squirrels Can Move In Under Your Deck Or Crawl Space
The area under your deck or house provides great protection to a squirrel throughout the winter. It is protected from the cold weather, snow, and rain, and they are unlikely to encounter predators or competitors.
A squirrel will gain access to these areas much the same way they would enter a garage or attic, by exploiting any gaps or holes they can find. Prevent squirrels from making a home in your crawl space by making sure all entry points are screened in securely, and repairing gaps as they happen.
Be careful to wait until the squirrel is outside before capping off any entry points, to ensure you don’t accidentally trap the squirrel under the home.
8. Under The Hood Of Your Car
While it doesn’t seem like a glamorous home, there are some advantages to making a home in the hood of your car. Squirrels may gain access to the engine by finding their way through small gaps in the underside of the car.
This home on wheels offers protection from the elements and is actually quite warm due to the heat from the engine. There are plenty of crevices in which to hide and build a nest.
However, this is not a safe place for a wintering squirrel, or for the car owner.
There are plenty of important wires and cords that the squirrel may chew through, and the flammable nesting materials like dried leaves and twigs are not safe next to hot mechanical parts.
This is why you will want to remove a squirrel from your car hood as soon as you notice they have made their home there, being careful not to come too close to the animal and risk being bitten.
9. Squirrels Love Dryer Vents
The final winter nesting site on this list is your dryer vent. This is a sneaky way that squirrels might gain access to the warm comforts of your home.
The dryer vent leads directly to the outside, and squirrels, who are used to burrowing and finding their way through tight spaces, may use them to their advantage.
They may choose to nest directly in the vent, or find their way into the home, building a home behind your dryer where they aren’t easily spotted.
Dryer vents are also appealing due to the abundance of dryer lint that makes warm and cozy nest material.
Whatever the case, you will want to prevent the squirrel from entering the vent by making sure that your vent cap like this Raven PVC Termination Cap is secure and not compromised.
What Else Do Squirrels Do In The Winter?
Now that you have learned all of the various places that squirrels may make their nests during the winter, you may be wondering what else they get up to when not sheltering from cold, wet weather.
Most squirrels are diurnal throughout the rest of the year, coming out at dawn and dusk and sleeping throughout the midday and night. However, their behavior does change during the winter, when the elements are much more harsh.
Do Squirrels Come Out In The Snow?
Squirrels spend the end of summer and fall bulking up for the colder weather. This extra layer of fat helps to protect them from the cold, making it safer to venture out of their nests.
While squirrels will remain inside of their winter homes for the majority of the day, The College of Environmental Science and Forestry states that they venture out even in the snow during the warmest part of the day, usually midday.
Because squirrels don’t hide their food in one place, they must venture out to eat at least once during the cold winter days. They rely on their keen sense of smell to find their stores, and can even detect their buried treasure under many feet of snow.
Once they gather their food, the squirrel will retreat back to their warm nests to eat and go back to sleep until the next day.
Squirrels Prepare For The Breeding Season
Squirrels make their nests in the fall and winter, adding material to them to create warm and cozy homes for the breeding season.
Squirrels begin to breed in late January and gestate for 44 days, according to Cornell University, and their babies are born by mid-March.
This means that winter is a vital time to prepare for the responsibilities of parenthood. This is a time of energy conservation, which is why they remain quite inactive, and also why those food stores are so vital.
What You Can Do To Help Overwintering Squirrels:
Squirrels, though they are rodents, have captured the hearts of many people with their bushy tails and big eyes. Even though they can be a nuisance if they get into your home, squirrels are an important part of our urban and rural environments.
Squirrels store far more food than they manage to eat, and their methods of burying seeds and nuts are important mechanisms in many plant life cycles. The food that they forget can germinate in the spring, growing into trees, shrubs, and flowers.
You should take precautions to prevent squirrels from making their home in yours, but if you want to make life easier for them, there are some ways you can help squirrels near you.
You Can Leave Out Food For Them
Squirrels will never turn down a free meal, and many people leave food out for them in addition to bird feeders.
You can get special squirrel feeders like this FFPOPU Squirrel Feeder, and stock them with shelled peanuts, corn, and other food mixes available in your area.
They will take advantage of bird feeders as well, and can tend to bully and scare off the birds you are wanting to feed, so you may want to consider squirrel proof your bird feeders to save more for the birds using something like this Soundfair Bird Feeder Baffle.
Just make sure to leave this food far away from your actual house so they won’t come inside if you go this route.
You Can Build Them Nesting Boxes
You can also put out nesting boxes specifically for the squirrels on your property.
These can be as nice as bird boxes, or can even just be made of old wooden boxes you no longer want or need.
In addition to providing shelter, you can also leave out unwanted items that can be used in the nest, such as dryer lint or even animal fur from when you brush your pet dog or cat.
Again, keep the box far away from your home at the edge of your yard if you choose.
Want more ideas to draw in squirrels? Check out 8 things that attract squirrels to your yard (and what to do). It’ll also help you keep them out!
What You Can Do To Keep Squirrels Out Of Unwanted Places
Maybe you aren’t inspired to feed and house all of your neighborhood squirrels, and that’s okay too!
For the safety of your home and family as well as the squirrels, you should definitely be taking precautions to prevent squirrels from gaining access to the places you don’t want them to be in.
Close Off Small Openings In Your Home
Regular maintenance will ensure that there are no gaps or holes in your siding, roof, or crawl space covers that squirrels can exploit.
Spend some time at the end of summer checking these areas and repairing or replacing gaps in roof tiles and shingles that could look inviting to a cold squirrel.
Cap Off Vents And Chimneys
Use caps to close off vents, chimneys, crawl spaces, and other areas that a squirrel may use to enter your home.
There are many different options available that will get the job done and are easy to find online or in the hardware store.
For those hard to reach spots, call a professional to help you safely install them, and to make sure the job is done correctly!
Use A Squirrel Deterrent
Deterrents are a great, gentle option to make your home less enticing to a squirrel.
Moth balls can be used in areas where human occupants don’t frequent, such as the attic or crawl space.
Get A Cat Or Dog
If you have a pet, a squirrel is much less likely to make its home on your property. Cats and dogs have great senses of smell and an innate prey drive. Y
our pet is not likely to make a squirrel feel welcome, and is a good deterrent to the curious and industrious animals.
When Do Squirrels Emerge In Spring?
You will begin to see squirrels more often toward the end of winter, when the world begins to thaw and warm up.
As spring begins, those buried nuts and seeds will germinate and begin to grow, making them a less viable food source for the hungry squirrel.
As these changes occur each spring, the squirrel is forced to emerge and take advantage of new plant growth, mushrooms, and even bird eggs to fill in the gaps in their diet.
They also likely have a family to care for, and will need to bring food back to the nest to provide for their young.
Baby squirrels are born in March, just in time for the snow to begin to melt and reveal new food sources, but they will be too small and fragile to exit the nest themselves.
Adult squirrels leave the nest at this time to find food to bring back to their growing brood.
Thanks For Reading!
Although we may not see much of them during the colder months, they are active during midday, accessing the food they have so diligently stored throughout the year. As we discussed, here’s a quick recap.
The most common places you will find squirrels in the winter are:
- Tree cavities
- Nest boxes
- Crawl spaces
- Car hoods
- Dryer vents
Happy squirrel repelling!
Felix Strumwasser. (1958) Factors in the pattern, timing and predictability of hibernation in the squirrel, Citellus beecheyi. American Physiological Society. 196:1, 8-14.
Grabek, K.R., Cooke, T.F., Epperson, L.E. et al. (2019) Genetic variation drives seasonal onset of hibernation in the 13-lined ground squirrel. Commun Biol 2, 478.
Hut, .R., Barnes, .B. & Daan, .S. (2002) Body temperature patterns before, during, and after semi-natural hibernation in the European ground squirrel. J Comp Physiol B 172, 47–58
Pesendorfer, Mario B., Sillett, T. Scott, Koenig, Walter D., and Morrison, Scott A. 2016. “Scatter-hoarding corvids as seed dispersers for oaks and pines: A review of a widely distributed mutualism and its utility to habitat restoration.” The Condor. 215–237.
Zack is a Nature & Wildlife specialist based in Upstate, NY, and is the founder of his Tree Journey and Pest Pointers brands. He has a vast experience with nature while living and growing up on 50+ acres of fields, woodlands, and a freshwater bass pond. Zack has encountered many pest situations over the years and has spent his time maintaining and planting over 35 species of trees since his youth with his family on their property.
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