Squirrelly invaders can cause damage inside, outside

By Tim Lockley

Fortunately for me, it didn't cost me anything this time. When I first moved into the home I currently occupy, there were squirrels already living in the attic. While in residence, they'd managed to do extensive damage to the telephone wires that ran through the house. Since the damage occurred inside my house, the repair costs were charged to me -- a little over $2,000 when the final tab was added up. This time, the damage was outside my house and the repairs were covered by Ma Bell herself.

Gray squirrels (as opposed to their cousins flying, fox and red squirrels) were voted by the National Pest Control Association as the number one nuisance pest in the United States. All squirrels have an affinity for living in holes, and our homes are just one big hole to a squirrel. Gray squirrels breed in mid-December or early January (and again in the early summer). Litters consist on one to eight pups.

The young are weaned in about two months. A gray squirrel's territory can take in up to 40 hectares, depending on the resources available. They eat hard fruit, nuts and seeds throughout the year. During the warmer months, they will consume mushrooms, tomatoes, corn and other garden fruits. When food is scarce, they will gnaw the bark off trees and shrubs. Occasionally, squirrels will eat insects.

If you live in the country, squirrels generally aren't a problem. here's plenty of forage for them, and predators keep their populations under control. In towns and cities, they are a major nuisance and can cause significant damage to property, especially if they manage to get inside a building. They gain access by traveling along electrical wires, television/telephone cables or by jumping from nearby trees. They can also enter through holes in siding, through unscreened vents or from chimneys.

The damage caused by squirrels occurs most often because of their gnawing. Gnawing is the way squirrels remodel their homes. They chew on soffits, sidings and fascias to make or enlarge a entrance. Once inside, they bring in nesting material. Because of boredom or outright malevolence, squirrels like to gnaw on wires. Removing the covering on wires can cause shorts and these can cause fires. Sometimes, squirrels running along power lines will short out transformers. Shorting out wires will often cause the death of the squirrel, but this is little consolation if you're without power or your house burns down. Not to mention the cost in money and time to make repairs.

Another, more common complaint against squirrels concerns bird feeders. Not only will these furry thieves steal the seed from the birds, they often will destroy the feeders in the process. They also will dig up recently planted bulbs and seeds. They'll uproot new plants, and they damage lawns when they bury or search for nuts.

If squirrels are in your house, you first have to find the entry point(s).

If they're running along cables, you can slit a piece of PVC pipe and place it over the wire. When a squirrel tries to cross over it, it will rotate destabilizing the squirrel's footing. For electrical lines, contact the power company.

Make certain that your attic vents are in good shape. You may want to add a wire screen over any suspect vents. If you have a chimney, cover the opening with the same type of wire mesh. Seal any holes or cracks. Close openings around pipes. Remember, squirrels can enter your home through an opening as small as 4 centimeters (1½ inches).

When you decide to seal up your home, make certain there are no squirrels inside. If you do accidentally close up a squirrel in your house, don't try chasing it. Open the windows and doors and allow the squirrel to find its own way out. If this doesn't work, set a live trap. You can buy one at most yard and garden stores. Use baits like whole peanuts or sunflower seeds. Peanut butter on bread works well, too.

Outside, the trick to successfully trapping a squirrel is placement. Set the trap at points where squirrels are used to foraging or near their points of entry into your house. Once you've captured the culprit, take it as far away as you can and release it in a wooded area.

Tim Lockley, a specialist in entomology, is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For answers to individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535.