Red squirrel injury to spruce trees in winter

Pesky red squirrels will feed on spruce and pine buds when other foods become scarce in the winter.

An innocent looking red squirrel enjoying a snack while plotting his next move. Photo: Michael Mengak, University of Georgia,
An innocent looking red squirrel enjoying a snack while plotting his next move. Photo by Michael Mengak, University of Georgia,

Is the ground around your spruce, Scots pine or white pine tree littered with branch tips? This damage is often thought to be caused by an insect or disease problem, but is usually the work of a hungry red squirrel. 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.

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.

Piles of pruned off branch tips are signs of red squirrel feeding injury. Photo by Jill O’Donnell, MSU Extension

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.

According to Michigan State University Extension, 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 and berries, and animal material such as bird eggs and bark beetle larvae.

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

Other than raking up branch tips, I don’t really know what to recommend to clients with a red squirrel problem. Maybe providing them another option such as tasty sunflower seeds or corn would keep them sated and away from a spruce tree. Jim Harding, MSU wildlife specialist, suggests spraying an animal repellent like “Liquid Fence” on the buds to discourage squirrels. These products are not expensive and perhaps worth a try. If there is just one or two problem squirrels, then live-trapping them (most can’t resist peanut butter) and moving them a long distance (several miles) into a legal receptive habitat area might also be an option.

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 must be followed. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, red squirrels can be taken year-round and there is no bag limit with a valid small game hunting license. Bon Appétit!

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

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