For the Birds Radio Program: Baby squirrels

Original Air Date: Sept. 6, 1996

Today Laura Erickson looks at a common feeder visitor, or intruder, depending on your point of view. The recording used is of a red squirrel, not a gray squirrel. (3:41) Date confirmed.

Audio missing
  • gray squirrel


Now that I’ve allowed my rehabber’s license to expire, you’d think I’d be free of baby animal responsibilities, but I keep getting drawn into new escapades. Legally I can’t help birds anymore, but a couple of weeks ago I somehow ended up with four tiny baby squirrels, less than a week old. One of my neighbors chopped their tree down, and rather than leave them in the hole for mother to retrieve, he brought them to me. You have to feed baby squirrels throughout the day, and two or three times at night, which is exhausting and reminds me vividly when I prefer baby birds to baby mammals. Most birds can’t see or find food in darkness, so baby birds are designed to sleep the night through. Baby mammals usually sleep snuggled to their mother, where they can nurse whenever they feel like it, so they are designed for round-the-clock feedings.

These little babies were bald and blind when they arrived, and covered with nasty bites from blood-sucking lice. I used a cat flea dust to make short work of the mites, and fed the babies a powdered puppy milk replacer called Esbilac, which we mixed with Pedialyte rather than water. At first they didn’t thrive. The two biggest had an especially difficult time adjusting to the change in diet. The biggest male died after just a few days. But within a week, the others were growing measurably. When I was counting at Hawk Ridge, my daughter Katie was in charge of feeding the squirrels, but the day she went to the state fair, I had to feed them at the ridge, where several people suggested I donate them to a raptor center to feed the hawks and owls. Imagine that!

The female and one male were thriving, but the runt of the litter developed a lump on his neck with a peculiar hole in the middle. I thought it was an infected louse bite. I treated him with hot packs and hydrogen peroxide, but the lump kept getting bigger for about a week. Then one day after holding a hot, wet washcloth on it for half an hour, I squeezed it to try to relieve some of the pressure, and suddenly out popped a big, ugly maggot! There is apparently one species of fly that lays its eggs on small baby mammals, and their larvae suck at the baby’s soft tissue until pupating. Then they drop out of the hole and fall to the ground, where they remain until emerging as flies the next summer. I’ve already urged Dave Barry to write Dave Barry’s Guide to Nature: How and Why to Avoid It. This is exactly the kind of story that belongs in this book. I didn’t know what to do with a huge, ugly squirrel maggot, so I sent it to him.

Now that my little runt no longer has a pain in the neck, he’s growing rapidly. The one little female aspirated on some milk and died, but the two surviving males have a short coat of fur now and their faces are looking more squirrel-like, making us eager for their eyes to open. Squirrels are hardly birds, but I suspect that within a few months these guys will be regulars at my bird feeders, and will be as welcome a sight as the rarest warblers. Squirrels are occasionally naughty and pesky, but they fill our trees, and our hearts, with fun and good cheer.