feeding squirrels in your backyard - familyguidecentral.com

Feeding Squirrels in Your Backyard? Here’s What Happens

Have you ever had a squirrel literally come up to you, sniffing around as if it were looking for something? Then you start to think about how cute these creatures look and maybe wonder if they’re hungry or not.

Yes, squirrels do provide plenty of entertainment, but they can also become pesky little creatures that are quite persistent in doing things that annoy typical homeowners. From taking food that doesn’t belong to them to snatching food from bird nests, providing for the wild roaming squirrel might not be a good solution.

Let’s dive more into this.

What happens when I feed squirrels in my backyard?

Feeding squirrels in your backyard occasionally is acceptable, but doing so regularly can create dependence, leading to aggressive behavior as they come to expect constant food sources from humans.

Such a practice may endanger their survival skills, as a sudden halt in feeding can result in starvation, undermining their natural foraging habits and ability to live independently. Therefore, moderation is key when providing food to wild squirrels.

Why you should feed your backyard squirrels

Squirrel eating bird feeder - Family Guide Central
Squirrel eating from a bird feeder
  • Disease Prevention Through Nutrition: Just like humans, squirrels can contract diseases that are a result of poor nutrition. Providing a balanced variety of food, such as nuts rich in omega-3 fatty acids, will help you contribute to a healthier squirrel population. These nutrients can play a key role in boosting the immune systems of squirrels, better enabling them to fend off illnesses.
  • Habitat Support in Urban Areas: Squirrels in urban environments often struggle due to a lack of natural resources. Offering food can mitigate the impact of habitat loss. For example, by planting squirrel-friendly trees or supplying a steady diet of native nuts and fruits, you can recreate part of their natural diet that urban sprawl has erased.
  • Behavioral Observation and Research: Feeding squirrels gives us an opportunity to observe their behaviors and contribute to citizen science projects. Many scientists gather data from the public on feeding habits, population health, and behavior patterns, which can lead to better urban wildlife management strategies.
  • Environmental Education for Younger Generations: When children participate in feeding squirrels, it becomes a hands-on educational experience. It helps them understand the role of wildlife in our ecosystems and the importance of nutritional support, especially during resource-scarce seasons like winter.
  • Interaction and Mental Health: Interacting with wildlife, such as feeding squirrels, can have therapeutic effects and improve mental well-being. The presence and activities of squirrels can offer entertainment and help to reduce stress levels in individuals, enhancing the overall quality of life for those who engage in this practice.
  • Pollination and Seed Dispersal: Squirrels are unintentional helpers in seed dispersal. As they forage and bury seeds and nuts, not all are retrieved, which can result in new plant growth. By feeding them seeds that are indigenous to the area, you can indirectly support the proliferation of local flora.
  • Support During Reproduction and Growing Populations: During peak breeding times, usually in the late winter and mid-summer, female squirrels are in particular in need of additional nutrition to support their young. Providing food during these critical periods can help you ensure a healthier start for the next generation of squirrels.
  • Preventing Squirrel-Related Damages: Hungry squirrels can become inventive in their quest for food, which might lead to them chewing through garden items, home exteriors, or wiring. Offering them a food source can reduce these behaviors by satisfying their search before it leads them to cause damage.

Why you shouldn’t feed your backyard squirrels

  • Disruption of Natural Foraging Skills: Regular feeding can impair squirrels’ innate ability to forage for food, which is a critical survival skill, especially for younger squirrels learning from their surroundings. This disruption can lead to difficulties in finding food when human-provided sources are absent.
  • Overpopulation Concerns: Providing food can lead to an increase in the local squirrel population as the abundance of food allows for higher survival rates of offspring. This overpopulation can result in excessive pressure on local vegetation and can also lead to more squirrel-human conflicts.
  • Risk of Disease Transmission: Concentrated feeding areas may increase the risk of spreading diseases among squirrels. For example, the close proximity at food sources can facilitate the spread of parasites or illnesses like mange, which might not only affect the squirrels but also other local wildlife.
  • Alteration of Squirrel Behavior: Feeding can cause squirrels to lose their natural fear of humans, leading to aggressive behavior and possible injuries to humans or pets. Instances where squirrels approach humans for food can be misinterpreted as aggression, creating unnecessary fears or safety concerns.
  • Potential Nutritional Imbalance: Human-provided foods may not meet the complex dietary needs of squirrels and can lead to nutritional deficiencies or health issues. A diet overly reliant on peanuts or corn, for example, might lack vital nutrients found in their natural varied diet.
  • Attracting Unwanted Pests: Squirrel feeders can attract other unwanted animals, such as rodents or raccoons, which may become pests themselves. These animals can then contribute to property damage or spread disease.
  • Creating Dependency: Regular feeding creates a dependency which could be problematic if you stop feeding the squirrels suddenly due to personal circumstances. This abrupt change can leave the animals without a reliable food source they’ve grown accustomed to.
  • Legal and Community Disputes: In some areas, feeding wildlife is against local regulations due to the issues it can cause. Ignoring these rules can result in fines and contribute to tensions with neighbors who may not appreciate the increased wildlife activity.

Don’t feed your backyard squirrels every day

There are people who are completely against feeding squirrels. But like I’ve explained before if you want to feed squirrels, make sure you do it moderately.

Never feed your backyard squirrels more than 3 times a week. Doing any more may build up a reliance on you. If squirrels eventually rely on you as their source of food and you decide you’re no longer giving them food, then they will have a difficult time transitioning back to foraging and hunting for their own food.

This will put them at a disadvantage for survival in the wild.

What do squirrels eat?

Squirrels have a varied diet that can broadly span across several categories, making them quite adaptable in wild and urban settings alike. Understanding their dietary preferences can offer insights into their behavior and how to coexist with these energetic creatures.

  • Nuts: A staple in the squirrel diet, nuts are rich in fats and proteins, which are essential for energy and growth. Squirrels are particularly fond of acorns, walnuts, pecans, and peanuts, often gathering and hoarding these items aggressively. This behavior is not just about immediate consumption but also about preparing for scarce food periods, demonstrating their natural instinct for survival through the winter months.
  • Fruits: Squirrels exhibit a sweet tooth, engaging with a variety of fruits they encounter in their habitat. Common favorites include apples, oranges, bananas, and berries, which provide them with vital vitamins and minerals. However, it’s interesting to note that squirrels should stay clear of certain fruits like dates, dried fruits, plums, prunes, and raisins, which might not be as beneficial for their health.
  • Vegetables: Demonstrating their herbivore tendencies, squirrels also partake in eating a wide range of vegetables. This includes leafy greens, radishes, corn, peas, tomatoes, carrots, and even cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower. These food sources offer them a different set of nutritional benefits, including fiber and additional vitamins.
  • Seeds: Right there with nuts, seeds form an essential part of their diet. However, this preference can lead to conflicts with humans, especially bird watchers, as squirrels are known to raid bird feeders for these tasty morsels. Despite being a source of frustration for many trying to feed birds, this behavior underscores the competitive nature of wildlife for resources.
  • Insects: While primarily following a plant-based diet, squirrels will occasionally consume insects, especially in situations where their preferred food sources are scarce. This includes caterpillars, grasshoppers, and other small bugs. These provide an alternative protein source and are especially important for younger squirrels that require more protein for growth.

How much water do squirrels drink?

Understanding the hydration needs of squirrels is essential for ensuring their well-being, especially if you’re interested in supporting these energetic creatures in your backyard. Typically, an adult squirrel requires approximately 3 teaspoonfuls of water daily, which sums up to about 7 tablespoons over the course of a week.

However, this is a general estimate, and the actual amount may vary based on the squirrel’s size, species, and environmental conditions. For instance, larger squirrel breeds inevitably consume more water. During periods of drought or when natural water sources are scarce, providing water becomes even more critical.

In such situations, investing in a pet bottled water dispenser can be a practical solution. These dispensers can supply clean water for an extended period, ensuring that the squirrels stay hydrated without needing constant refills. It’s a simple yet effective way to support the local wildlife, particularly during the hotter months when water is less accessible.

Can you hand-feed squirrels?

Despite appearing to be a friendly and harmless interaction, wildlife experts generally advise against hand-feeding squirrels because it carries significant risks. Gaining the trust of a squirrel to the point where it accepts food from your hand might appear to be a rewarding experience, but it fundamentally alters the animal’s natural behavior.

Such practices teach squirrels to lose their innate fear of humans, potentially compromising their survival instincts and ability to perceive and escape dangers. More importantly, the risk of squirrel bites cannot be understated. A squirrel’s bite can be surprisingly forceful, enough to cause bleeding, and poses a risk of transmitting diseases to humans.

Wildlife professionals universally advise against the practice of hand-feeding wild squirrels, emphasizing the importance of observing these fascinating creatures from a distance to ensure the safety and well-being of both parties. Maintaining a respectful boundary with wildlife, like squirrels, is essential for harmonious coexistence in natural habitats.

What not to feed Squirrels

  • Heavily Processed Human Foods: Squirrels have robust digestive systems, yet heavily processed items such as chips, candies, or any sugary, highly processed snacks can be harmful. These foods lack nutritional value and can lead to health issues such as obesity or dental problems in squirrels. Additionally, processed foods are usually high in sugar and can cause metabolic bone disease, a condition stemming from an imbalance of calcium and phosphorus.
  • Peanuts in Moderation: Although not inherently harmful, peanuts should be given in moderation. Peanuts are technically legumes, not nuts, and don’t offer the same nutritional benefits as true nuts like almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, and pecans. Overreliance on peanuts can lead to nutritional deficiencies. Aim to diversify the types of nuts and seeds squirrels consume to mimic their natural, varied diet.
  • Salted Nuts: Salted nuts carry an excessive amount of sodium, which is not suitable for squirrels. High sodium intake can lead to dehydration, kidney stress, and potentially sodium ion poisoning in extreme cases. When offering nuts to squirrels, ensure they are unsalted to avoid these health risks.
  • Foods with High Sugar Content: It’s best to avoid giving squirrels foods that are high in sugar, including some fruits that are high in natural sugars. While fruits like berries and apples can be part of a healthy diet for squirrels, items like dried fruit, candy, or fruit juice provide a concentrated sugar dose without the balance of fiber, and can contribute to health issues.
  • Dairy Products: Squirrels are largely lactose intolerant. Dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt can cause digestive upset, including diarrhea. This not only affects the squirrel’s health but also can lead to dehydration and malnutrition.

How to protect your vegetable garden from squirrels

  • Secure Your Garden with Mesh Netting: One of the most effective ways to protect your vegetable garden from squirrels is to install a protective barrier like a mesh net. This mesh netting can be positioned around and over your plants, preventing the squirrels from gaining access. Ensure that the mesh used has small enough gaps to prevent small squirrels from squeezing through. As squirrels are skilled climbers and jumpers, it’s crucial to secure the netting not just around the sides of your garden, but at the top as well.
  • Use Mini Greenhouses: If mesh netting seems insufficient, consider moving your garden into a closed system like a mini greenhouse. Mini greenhouses offer an excellent defense against squirrels as they provide a complete physical barrier. These enclosures can ensure that your plants grow in a controlled, pest-free environment. However, remember to take into account other climatic factors like heat and humidity when using greenhouses.
  • Coffee Grounds as a Deterrent: Squirrels are known to dislike the scent of coffee. Distributing fresh coffee grounds around your vegetable garden may act as a deterrent, discouraging squirrels from digging up the soil. The advantage here is two-fold – not only does it keep the squirrels at bay, but coffee grounds also enrich the soil with nitrogen, promoting healthy plant growth.
  • Natural Repellents: In addition to coffee grounds, strong-smelling natural ingredients like cayenne pepper, garlic, and vinegar deter squirrels. Spray these around the perimeter of your garden or mix them into your soil. These natural repellents won’t harm your plants and can keep squirrels away.

How to keep squirrels away from bird feeders

  • Location of Birdfeeders: One common and effective method is to position the birdfeeder high atop a pole, far from any trees, shrubs, or structures like your home from which squirrels can launch a jump. You’ll want to ensure the pole is long enough to prevent squirrels from simply jumping onto it. As a rule of thumb, the birdfeeder should be positioned at least 8 feet off the ground and at least 10 feet from the nearest launching point.
  • Grease the Pole: To further prevent squirrels from reaching the birdfeeder, apply a non-toxic grease or petroleum jelly to the pole. This makes the pole too slippery for squirrels to climb. Remember to regularly check and reapply as needed, as weathering or other factors can lessen its effectiveness over time.
  • Use a Baffle: Baffles are cone or disk-shaped devices that wrap around the feeder pole below the feeder. When a squirrel attempts to climb the pole, they reach the baffle and cannot navigate around it, thus preventing them from reaching the feed. The larger the diameter of the baffle, the more effective it can be.
  • Spicy Birdfeed: An interesting method to deter squirrels is to add hot sauce or capsaicin (the compound that makes peppers hot) to the birdfeed. Unlike squirrels and other mammals, birds are unaffected by capsaicin and can happily eat the feed. However, the intense heat will deter squirrels, making them reconsider their snack choice.

Keep in mind that while it may be frustrating to have squirrels raiding your bird feeders, they are simply looking for food. Providing an alternative food source for them away from the birds’ vicinity can also be a good strategy, as this can satisfy their hunger while leaving your bird feeders untouched. Combining a few or all of these strategies will ensure a peaceful coexistence between you, the birds, and the squirrels in your space.

The bottom line

It’s important to understand that squirrels are wild animals and they are nothing like the usual domesticated rodents we have in cages. While you can feed squirrels, it’s often not a good idea to feed them too often. This creates more problems down the line with attracting more and more squirrels to your area.

It can also create a dependency, which will actually hurt the survival of the squirrel. Squirrels can become pests and while there are ways to deter squirrels from places like our vegetable garden and birdfeeders, it’s best to avoid giving them an invitation by feeding them too frequently.


  • What do squirrels hate? When we are talking about things that repel squirrels, surprisingly enough, you can use scents like black pepper, white pepper, peppermint, and garlic. You can even try to spray these scents on your garden to try to hinder their attraction to it. Squirrels are also scared of scarecrows, snakes, and owls. And of course, they won’t be able to tell the difference if you buy these animals as realistic toys.
  • Do squirrels carry disease and parasites? Squirrels are known to carry diseases like tularemia, typhus, plague, and ringworm and can be transmitted through bites or other forms of contact. Humans can spread these diseases, and they can also be fatal. Squirrels have even been known to have a variant of mad cow disease that can be fatal if humans were to eat their brains, which some regions in the US find delicacies. Squirrels can also carry fleas, ticks, and mites, which can infect humans as well.
  • Are there any noises that can scare squirrels? There isn’t any kind of special sound that can specifically ward off squirrels. Loud sounds for example, can scare squirrels away but they can be disturbing to humans as well. There do exist ultrasonic rodent repellent noises, but these high-frequency sounds have been known to irritate younger children as well.
  • Can squirrels remember humans? It goes without saying that if you feed a squirrel enough times, it will come back to you expecting more. So, squirrels do have good memories and there have been several documented cases of squirrels coming back to the same person because they can quickly understand that this person is safe and provides them with food.
  • What does a squirrel do to show that it likes you? Squirrels can show affection through nibbling and licking. However, you need to be careful. These are wild creatures and ultimately, at any moment, the nibbling can become a hard bite. I recommend that you don’t try to hold or let squirrels eat from your hand.
  • What plants can get rid of squirrels? If you’re looking for a plant that somehow deters squirrels, you can try planting daffodils, lily of the valley, hyacinths, peppermint, allium, and geranium. These are plants that squirrels will try to avoid. However, through experience, it doesn’t always work.

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