Do Squirrels Hibernate During the Winter?

do squirrels hibernate during the winter

When crisp autumn evenings transition into freezing nights, animals scramble for a warm haven to avoid the snow and freezing weather. Winter landscapes are generally desolate, with little wildlife to be seen. However, you may occasionally observe a bushy-tailed squirrel hopping through snow up to its whiskers, leading you to wonder “do squirrels hibernate during the winter?”.

There are two types of behaviors in squirrels during winter. The ground squirrel is the only type of squirrel that will hibernate. In contrast, tree squirrels will have a rest period during the harsh, freezing winter. Both of these behaviors are a type of dormancy for them. The primary purpose of this behavior is to conserve energy by becoming less active throughout the winter. Squirrels that are resting in the winter have two main priorities: sleeping and eating.

We’ll talk about squirrels’ winter habits and routines in this article.

Winter rest and hibernation

Before we get into what squirrels do in the winter, it’s essential to understand the many survival modes animals might employ. These are commonly misunderstood since they are similar, but a few differences distinguish each process.

What is hibernation and how does it work?

What is hibernation, and why does it occur in some animals?

When most people think of hibernation, they imagine a cuddly bear cuddled up in a cave sleeping away the winter days – yet hibernation in animals includes more than just resting for the long haul. Hibernation is an energy-saving strategy used by animals to survive through the winter months when food is limited.

A hibernator’s physiology changes dramatically during hibernation by slowing down all of its energy-consuming functions, sometimes to a complete stop for more than an hour. This includes lowering the heart rate, breathing (smaller hibernators may completely halt for an hour or so), and overall body temperature.

Hibernating animals are mostly warm-blooded, which means they can regulate their body temperature internally. Hibernating animals will stay alive until food becomes more available if they eat a lot of food before the winter and “fatten up.” This, combined with the energy-saving properties of hibernation, will keep them alive until food becomes more available.

Hibernation is more than just a long slumber. The animal’s body will shut down to the bare minimum to save as much energy as possible.

The body will rely on fat storage during hibernation to keep the animal from waking up to eat. Due to a shortage of food and water, they cannot dispose of any waste during this time.

Some factors come into play in influencing hibernation, whereas this is weather, seasons, and how much energy the animal has stored.

What is winter rest?

Another type of animal dormancy is winter rest. The goal is to conserve energy for the animals, similar to hibernation. Winter rest, on the other hand, is a much gentler sort of dormancy.

Animals will significantly lower their activity throughout the winter months as the rest. They will continue to engage in their typical activities, although not as frequently. The majority of their day will be spent resting and eating. During winter repose, it’s common for squirrels to sleep for a few days at a time.

The heart rate of a squirrel drops slightly when it is resting in the winter. Their metabolism and temperature, however, will remain unchanged. This means squirrels can swiftly become active if necessary.

Can squirrels hibernate?

Ground squirrels can hibernate because they have the necessary bodily mechanism. The body of a ground squirrel can inhibit vital activities, including heart rate and urine production. This permits the ground squirrels to survive without eating, drinking, peeing, or pooping, as well as with very little breathing. Their bodies are also built to withstand the loss of muscle and cells that occurs during this time.

Other squirrel species do not have the same ability to hibernate as ground squirrels. Other squirrel species, on the other hand, are unable to hibernate. At some point, they’d have to eat, drink, or pee.

Do squirrels hibernate during the winter?

Because not all squirrels hibernate, you won’t see many squirrels in the winter landscape. Tree squirrels such as Fox Squirrels, Gray and Red Squirrels, and Gray and Red Squirrels do not hibernate. Still, they will spend much more time in their nests or niches in trees during the winter months than they would during the summer. Only one type of squirrel hibernates in the winter; hence, most squirrel species are not hibernators.

We’ll look at the routines of most squirrel species in the winter and how they prepare for the harsh winter months before diving into which sort of squirrel hibernates.

Non-hibernating squirrels and winter preparation

Although some squirrel species do hibernate, the vast majority of squirrel species do not. So, how do non-hibernating squirrels prepare for and withstand the tough winter weather? If you’ve ever seen squirrels stuff their cheeks with acorns or bury a hoard of nuts and seeds, you might be curious as to what they’re up to.

Squirrels will store nuts and seeds underground or in trees from the summer to the fall to have a supply that will last them through the winter. They’ll also bury acorns and nuts in various spots to confound any furry burglars who might be on the lookout. The last line of defense for a squirrel is to gain weight. Suppose they lose their food stashes due to other squirrels or forgetfulness. In that case, they’ll be able to compensate with increased body fat.

Squirrel behavior during the winter

Although most squirrels do not hibernate, they seek shelter in their nests or holes in trees to avoid the elements. When the snow has stopped or melted, you could notice a squirrel or two jumping around on the freezing ground, possibly looking for a hidden hoard of acorns from the previous Spring.

Tree squirrels, such as gray squirrels, are typically solitary creatures. Still, if the winter is exceptionally harsh, a pair of squirrels may bed together in a warm pile of leaves inside a tree to stay warm. If a squirrel or a family of squirrels is having trouble nesting on trees outside, they can be found in your attic, sheds, and barns for more security.

A tree squirrel will consume snow to stay hydrated in locations with harsh winters when natural water sources freeze over. Some homeowners will invest in a heated birdbath to provide squirrels with a convenient source of water.

The hibernating squirrels

The ground squirrel is the only category of squirrels that hibernates, as noted briefly above. There are approximately 200 species of squirrels. Ground Hogs, California Ground Squirrels, Chip Munks, Marmots, and the Arctic Ground Squirrel are ground squirrels.

Ground squirrels are distinguished by their short ears, which are flattened to the head, lighter color, and burrows. These squirrels likewise prefer rocky, mountainous, or desert environments, and they live in families or big groups.

So, how do these squirrels get ready for the winter?

Ground squirrels preparing for hibernation

Ground Squirrels eat green foliage, insects, wild berries, and blossoming plants in the summer to prepare for the oncoming winter months. They’ll consume so much that their weight nearly doubles to keep warm during the winter.

Ground squirrels may dig up to 6 feet deep and a few feet horizontally to dig their tunnel. They are protected from any snow, wind, or other elements that may fall into the hole by digging a few feet away from the entrance. It also serves as a heat-retaining insulator. To construct a cozy nest, ground squirrels may stuff their tunnels with leaves.

Some ground squirrels are light hibernators, waking up on warmer winter days to seek nearby food or water before returning to their “sleep.”

What do squirrels do in winter?

Food sources are low in the winter, and the weather is hard for animals.

For squirrels to make it through the winter, they must put in a lot of effort.

During the winter months, this primarily entails keeping themselves warm, protected, and fed. Seasonal changes in the sunshine trigger these processes.

Let’s have a look at how they do it.

1. Build nests

Squirrels utilize nests all year round. These nests, however, are beefed-up copies of their summer nests in the winter.

In preparation for the winter, a squirrel’s nest will be created up of twigs, leaves, moss, and bird feathers. This keeps the nest well insulated and allows as little heat to escape as possible.

Squirrels will also construct multiple dreys in various locations. This is a defense mechanism used to prevent predators and parasitic illnesses. During the summer, squirrels build these nests. They won’t have to waste energy building a new nest during the severe winter months when supplies are scarce.

During the winter, several squirrel species will share their drey. This allows them to save energy by sharing their body heat.

2. Collect supplies

Squirrels understand that there is less food available in the winter than in the summer.

When food is plentiful during the summer months, they plan to set up a “food cache.” These are similar to little larders that they keep near their nests. This is referred to as scatter-hoarding. It’s a clever strategy that ensures their cache is scattered over multiple sites. It prevents the entire supply from being depleted if another animal comes upon it.

Squirrels have even been found to act as if they are storing food to fool would-be thieves who are observing and ready to steal it later.

Squirrels will store nuts, seeds, berries, and insets in their burrows. Nuts and seeds make up most of a squirrel’s diet since they keep well in its caches.

Because they keep modest stockpiles near their trees, they only have to travel a short distance for a good winter food source. This saves energy from foraging during times when food is scarce.

Squirrels are noted for having a keen sense of smell and for creating memorable memories. In the winter, both of these talents assist squirrels in relocating their food stores.

3. Get fatter

Squirrels try to eat a lot, as much as they can, during the summer months. Their goal is to gain as much weight as possible throughout this time. For the winter, red squirrels put on about 12% of their body weight. Grey squirrels can accumulate up to 25% of their body weight.

Squirrel fat is a specific sort of brown fat that they save for the winter. This has two different effects.

It aids in the insulation and protection of squirrels from the harsh winter elements.
It can be utilized as a source of energy when food is scarce.
When brown fat is broken down, it generates heat for squirrels, allowing them to maintain a high body temperature.

4. Grow a coat

To assist them to withstand the cold winter temperatures, squirrels will make a few changes to their coats.

The most significant difference is that they will acquire thicker fur in the months leading up to winter. Squirrels have a dual layer of top and underfur as a result of this. The underlayer retains heat and protects against wind and water. By December, a squirrel’s winter coat is usually complete.

Squirrel fur will frequently appear darker due to the additional hairs. Squirrels benefit from darker fur because it helps them retain heat from the winter light. This is especially true of black squirrels, which can survive in colder climates.

During the winter, squirrels must be vigilant in protecting themselves from nest parasites. Squirrels might lose their hair as a result of these infestations. As a result, the squirrels may be more vulnerable to winter weather.

5. Lower their activity

The squirrel’s winter survival depends entirely on their ability to reduce their activity as the season progresses. This is when they take a break for the winter.

During the summer, a squirrel is most active during the 12 hours of daylight. During the winter, this will be reduced to a 4-5 hour daily active session. During their winter repose, squirrels sleep for about 18-20 hours per day.

During these periods, the majority of squirrel activity will be gathering food from their caches. The remaining active time will be spent eating.

A squirrel can sleep for several days if the weather is harsh. Those vital brown fat stores provide them with the energy they require to survive without food throughout this period.

Where do squirrels live in the winter?

Squirrels will spend the winter mainly in their dreys. Ground squirrels will dwell in tunnels, whereas tree squirrels will build their nests in trees.

Tree-dwelling squirrels will try to hide their drey in deep tree holes and trunks to shelter it from the wind as much as possible.

Outside of buildings, squirrels may be found nesting in attics, sheds, garages, and cavities.

Do squirrels migrate?

Some tree squirrels have been known to migrate in the past. This will typically move a maximum distance of 35-50 miles. Migrating squirrels are looking for a better home. This is most likely a result of environmental factors. Areas impacted by crop damage or flooding are common causes.

Modern squirrels are well acclimated to increasingly developed regions; therefore seasonal migration does not occur every year.

If they live in an adverse environment, squirrels will lower their breeding population. After the breeding season is over, they will most likely relocate to a more suitable location.

All squirrels are different

Because each squirrel species is unique, they will all have their unique behaviors, whether hibernating or resting in the winter. Squirrels come in over 200 different species, but let’s look at what the popular ones will do.

Grey squirrel

Grey squirrels will hibernate during the winter. To keep themselves shielded from the elements, they make their nests in tree forks. Grey squirrels have been observed building nests in attics and external walls.

During the summer, the grey squirrel will strive to save as much food as possible. This means they can return to their winter hiding areas to gather an easy food supply without forage.

Grey squirrels will sleep for extended amounts of time during cold times. To save energy, you can even sleep for several days at a time.

Red squirrel

In terms of winter preparation and habit, red squirrels are similar to grey squirrels. Making dreys and saving food for later are examples of this.

Red squirrels like to nest in deep evergreen trees, while grey squirrels prefer to nest in open areas. For added safety, reds prefer to build their nests in tree cavities.

Red squirrels also sleep for longer amounts of time than grey squirrels. That’s why, in the winter, you’re more likely to see a grey squirrel than a red squirrel.

Ground squirrel

The only actual hibernating squirrel species is the ground squirrel. For 5-8 months of the year, a ground squirrel will hibernate.

Ground squirrels will hibernate from the end of July to the beginning of September. They use to come out of hibernation late in the spring (around March).

Ground squirrels hibernate deep below in their burrows. Colonies of ground squirrels exist. This suggests they hibernate with a group of other ground squirrels nearby.

Fox squirrel

During the winter, fox squirrels do not hibernate. They will build a cozy nest and use food caches, just as grey and red squirrels throughout the winter.

The majority of fox squirrels are alone. During the winter breeding season, they may, however, nest together. During the winter, female fox squirrels will nest with their young infants.

Flying squirrel

In the winter, flying squirrels do not hibernate. Their winter hibernation differs from that of other squirrel species.

Flying squirrels prefer to nest in groups during the winter. This implies they can conserve energy by lowering their metabolic rate and temperature.

The issue with living in a community is that you require meals more frequently. During the winter nights, flying squirrels will have one or two brief bursts of activity. Temperatures below -4°F (-20°C) will bring this to a halt.

Final thoughts

So, do squirrels go dormant throughout the winter?

Some of them do! While most tree squirrels spend their time feasting on buried acorns and huddling together in a leaf-filled tree cleft, Ground Squirrels spend months leading up to winter preparing to sleep safely through the snowy days.

If you don’t have any Ground Squirrels in your area, make sure to help your local tree squirrels out by providing enough food and water for them to consume over the winter!

We hope you found our guide about hibernating squirrels useful!

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Emma Olsen
I’m a gardener and blogger with over 20 years of expertise writing about and cultivating fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. I have extensive experience in organic and sustainable gardening, perennials, annuals, and sustainable and urban farming. I’m a nature freak and I enjoy bird watching and swimming with sea creatures.