Thursday, May 2, 2024

Exploring the Western NY Wilds: The case of the skull-eating squirrels

In what might appear to be an homage to settlements of the Old West, about 10 years ago I began the habit of putting cow skulls or deer skulls near my back porch, the main entrance to my home. That has no doubt caught the attention of visitors, especially those who don’t know me well.

But, there is a method to my madness.

Regular visitors will notice that every one of those skulls has “shrunk” down to nothing.

They weren’t destroyed by the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. They weren’t eaten by carrion beetles. Nor were they worn away by sidewalk salt.

Instead, each of those skulls was consumed by grey squirrels.

Most people think of squirrels as cute, docile little animals that eat nothing but seeds and nuts. That stereotype can quickly change when they see the bug-eyed creatures gnawing away on bone. There’s something strange about it.

Adding to that sight is the unforgettable sound. I’m sure you’ve heard squirrels chewing on walnut shells in the fall. That sound, loud in itself, is nothing like tooth on bone, especially on a hollow, resonant skull. That fingernails-on-chalkboard sound can be heard from almost one hundred feet away.

They aren’t doing it for kicks. They are doing it for survival, which is why I keep skulls laying around.

There is twofold benefit for squirrels consuming skulls.

First off, they must do this to stave off metabolic bone disease. MBD is a common ailment for squirrels in captivity and squirrels that live in yards away from forests (such as those in a village or in farm country, where I live). What happens is they consume birdseed, walnuts, butternuts, hickory, and even corn from adjacent farm fields – foods high in phosphorous and low in calcium. That creates a chemical imbalance whereby the squirrel is overcome with lethargy and develops fractured bones.

Prior to putting skulls out, I would occasionally see squirrels suffering from strange seizures or losing use of their back legs. Those are both telltale signs of deep MBD. I haven’t seen one sickly squirrels since the skulls were made available for them. They get the calcium they need from eating the skull, so the sickness that previously affected squirrels in my yard is a thing of the past.

Bone disease doesn’t normally happen to forest-dwelling squirrels as they get calcium from carcasses, bones, and shed deer antlers found throughout the forest (things you normally don’t have laying on your lawn). It happens a lot to pet squirrels, which is why experienced squirrel owners feed their pets calcium powder or bones that would normally be given to dogs.

Another reason that squirrels chew on bone is to keep their teeth in check. I’m sure you’ve heard that if beavers don’t keep gnawing wood, their teeth will grow too long, piercing their lower lips or extending beyond their lower jaw, making it impossible to eat, thus starving from their lack of good dental care.

The same holds true for squirrels. This is called malocclusion and, as with the beaver, it could cause the slow death of a squirrel. By gnawing on bone material, they can keep their teeth short and useful. This is why you might also see them chewing on the stone foundation of your home.

Having access to bones is crucial for the health, even life, of squirrels. So, if you have a family of them in your yard and you appreciate their cuteness, companionship, and silly antics, do them a big favor and put some bones out for them. You don’t have to go overboard in a frightening manner like I do with animal skulls, but if you can get access to some leg bones or soup bones it would go a long ways in ensuring their well-being.  

From the 14 February 2024 Wellsville Sun

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