Red squirrels pruning spruce trees

When other food becomes scarce in the winter, red squirrels will feed on spruce buds, leaving a pile of branch tips on the ground below.

During the past two weeks, several people have called to report finding the ground around their spruce trees littered with branch tips. Each 4 to 5 inch branch tip had been neatly pruned from the tree. Some reported finding piles of these cut-off ends around the base of their trees. We’ve seen this type of injury before and a quick look at the buds will likely reveal the centers have been eaten out. This is the work of our noisy little friend, the red squirrel. When other foods become scarce in the winter, red squirrels feed on spruce buds. Rather than just eating the buds, these pesky rodents prefer to first prune the branch tip from the tree, eat the bud then discard the branch. As the squirrel continues to dine, the branch tips pile up on the ground below.

An innocent looking red squirrel enjoying a snack while plotting his next move (left), and signs of red squirrel feeding injury: Piles of pruned-off branch tips (right).
An innocent looking red squirrel enjoying a snack while plotting his
next move (left), Photo credit: Michael Mengak, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org,
and signs of red squirrel feeding injury: Piles of pruned-off branch tips
(right), Photo credit: Jill O’Donnell, MSU Extension

Red squirrels, also known as pine squirrels and chickarees, are native rodents that can be easily identified from other North American tree squirrels by their smaller size, territorial behavior and reddish fur with a white under-belly. Red squirrels aggressively defend their territory from other squirrels. They get annoyed whenever large animals, particularly dogs and people, intrude onto their territory. Anyone who walks the woods recognizes the barks and chatter of an annoyed red squirrel. They will sit on a birdfeeder seemingly for hours eating sunflower seeds and chasing the intended beneficiaries away.

Red squirrels have one the widest distributions of all North American squirrels. They occur in Alaska, across Canada to the northeast United States and south through the Appalachians. They also are found in the Rocky Mountains. The diet of these tree squirrels is specialized on the seeds of conifer cones and as such, they live throughout North America wherever conifers are common. There are 25 recognized sub-species of red squirrels. They eat almost anything they can get their little hands on including spruce buds and needles, mushrooms, willow leaves, poplar buds and catkins, flowers, berries and animal material such as bird eggs and bark beetle larvae.

Other than raking up branch tips, I don’t really know what to recommend to clients with a red squirrel problem. Maybe feeding them tasty sunflower seeds or corn would keep them sated and away from a spruce tree. Of course, there is the nuclear option: both Remington and Winchester manufacture several products that will provide effective red squirrel control. However, local ordinances regarding the discharge of firearms within city and other municipal boundaries, as well as the legal hunting season for red squirrel must be followed. If you have any other ideas, please contact me.

A close up of a branch tip showing where the red squirrel bit it off (left), and a close up of two spruce buds that had their centers eaten by a red squirrel (right).
A close up of a branch tip showing where the red squirrel bit it
off (left), and a close up of two spruce buds that had their centers
eaten by a red squirrel (right), Photo credits: Howard Russell, MSU Diagnostic Services

For more information on red squirrels, visit the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology’s Animal Diversity Web.

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