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Why squirrels nest in the winter

by John Milton
Why squirrels nest in the winter

As winter approaches, animals all around us are preparing for the colder months. Squirrels, in particular, have developed fascinating strategies to adapt and survive during this time. One of the most important aspects of their winter preparation is finding a suitable place to nest. But why do squirrels nest in the winter?

Squirrels are small creatures with high metabolisms, which means they need a constant source of energy to maintain their body temperature. During the winter, food becomes scarce, and the cold weather makes it difficult for squirrels to find enough to eat. To conserve energy and stay warm, squirrels enter a state of torpor. This is similar to hibernation, but not as deep. It allows squirrels to lower their body temperature and metabolic rate, reducing their energy expenditure.

Nesting provides squirrels with a safe and cozy place to spend the winter. By hunkering down in their nests, squirrels can conserve body heat and protect themselves from the harsh elements. Nesting also allows them to stay close to their food sources, making it easier to venture out and find sustenance when necessary. So, finding a suitable nest is crucial for a squirrel’s survival during the winter months.

Squirrels have evolved different nesting strategies depending on their species and the available resources in their environment. Let’s explore some of the common types of squirrel nests in more detail.

Different types of squirrel nests

Squirrels have several options when it comes to choosing a winter dwelling. Each type of nest has its own unique characteristics and advantages, providing the squirrel with a safe and warm place to spend the winter.

Tree Cavities

One of the most common choices for squirrels is to inhabit tree cavities. These natural hollows provide excellent insulation, protecting the squirrels from the cold weather. Tree cavities are often formed by decay or woodpeckers, creating a cozy and secure space for squirrels to nest. These cavities can be found in various types of trees, including oak, maple, and pine.

When using tree cavities, squirrels may modify the entrance to make it smaller, preventing larger predators from gaining access. They may also line the inside of the cavity with soft materials such as leaves, moss, and fur to create a comfortable and warm nest.

Leaf Nests (Dreys)

Another popular choice for squirrels is to build leaf nests, also known as dreys. These nests are constructed high up in the trees using twigs, leaves, and moss. The construction of a drey starts with a platform made of interwoven twigs that forms the base. The squirrel then builds up the sides using leaves, creating a spherical structure with a small entrance hole.

Leaf nests provide excellent protection against the elements and predators. The dense layers of leaves offer insulation, keeping the interior warm and dry. The height of the nest also helps to keep squirrels safe from ground-dwelling predators. Leaf nests are commonly found in deciduous trees, such as oaks and maples.

Attics, Basements, and Abandoned Bird Nests

In some situations, squirrels may seek refuge in man-made structures or repurpose abandoned bird nests. Attics and basements provide shelter from the cold and can be easily accessed through small openings or damaged areas. Squirrels are skilled climbers and can navigate through trees and onto rooftops, making it relatively easy for them to find their way into homes. Squirrel removal from attics should only be handled by trained Central Virginia wildlife removal specialists.

When using man-made structures, squirrels may create nests using materials such as insulation, fabric, and leaves to make them more comfortable. However, it’s important to note that squirrels nesting in these locations can cause problems for homeowners. They may chew through wires, insulation, and wood, leading to damage and potential fire hazards.

Understanding the different types of squirrel nests helps us appreciate the resourcefulness of these creatures. Now, let’s explore where squirrels typically nest in the winter.

Where squirrels typically nest in the winter

Squirrels have adapted to a wide range of habitats and can be found in various locations around the world. The specific nesting locations of squirrels in the winter can vary depending on factors such as their species, the availability of suitable trees, and the local climate. However, there are some general patterns that can help us understand where squirrels typically nest during this time.

In forested areas, squirrels often choose to nest in tree cavities. These natural hollows provide excellent protection from the elements and predators. The availability of suitable trees plays a significant role in determining the population density of squirrels in an area. In regions with a high concentration of deciduous trees, such as oaks and maples, the likelihood of finding squirrel nests is higher.

In urban and suburban areas, squirrels may adapt their nesting habits to make use of man-made structures. Attics, basements, and abandoned bird nests can provide squirrels with a warm and secure place to spend the winter. The abundance of buildings and trees in these areas often makes them attractive nesting sites for squirrels.

The exact location of squirrel nests within these habitats can vary. Squirrels may choose to nest in trees near a reliable food source, such as a bird feeder or a nut-bearing tree. They may also select trees with dense foliage or good cover to protect themselves from predators. Understanding these preferences can help us identify potential nesting sites and appreciate the adaptability of squirrels.

Factors that influence squirrel nesting locations

Several factors influence the nesting locations of squirrels during the winter. Understanding these factors can help us predict where squirrels are likely to build their nests and appreciate the challenges they face in finding suitable habitats.

Food Availability

Food availability is a crucial factor that influences squirrel nesting locations. Squirrels require a steady supply of food to survive the winter months. They typically rely on nuts, seeds, berries, and fungi, which may be abundant in certain areas. Squirrels are known to cache food in various locations, so they prefer nesting near their food sources to minimize travel distances.

Tree Availability

The availability of suitable trees also plays a significant role in determining squirrel nesting locations. Trees with natural cavities or dense foliage provide better protection and insulation for squirrel nests. In areas with a high density of deciduous trees, squirrels are more likely to nest in tree cavities or build leaf nests. Areas with a scarcity of suitable trees may force squirrels to seek alternative nesting sites, such as man-made structures.

Predation Risk

Predation risk is another important factor that influences squirrel nesting locations. Squirrels are preyed upon by a variety of animals, including birds of prey, snakes, and mammals. To minimize the risk of predation, squirrels prefer nesting locations that provide good cover and are difficult for predators to access. Trees with dense foliage or structures with limited entry points offer squirrels a higher level of protection.


The local climate also plays a role in determining squirrel nesting locations. In regions with harsh winters and heavy snowfall, squirrels may prefer nesting in tree cavities or man-made structures that provide better insulation. In milder climates, squirrels may choose to build leaf nests as they offer adequate protection without the need for additional insulation.

Understanding the factors that influence squirrel nesting locations can help us appreciate the challenges they face and develop strategies to protect their habitats. So, how can we identify signs of squirrel nesting in our area?

Signs of squirrel nesting in your area

Identifying signs of squirrel nesting in your area can be an exciting and informative activity. By observing the behaviors and habitats of squirrels, you can gain insights into their nesting habits and better appreciate their presence in your environment. Here are some signs to look out for:

Leafy Dreys

One of the most visible signs of squirrel nesting is the presence of leafy dreys in trees. These spherical structures made of twigs and leaves can be seen high up in the branches. Look for nests that are approximately the size of a basketball and located in the forks or crotches of trees. The presence of twigs and leaves scattered on the ground beneath the nest is also a good indication of squirrel activity.

Tree Cavities

If you notice holes or hollows in tree trunks, there is a possibility that they are being used as squirrel nests. Look for signs of chewing around the entrance of the cavity, as squirrels often modify the opening to make it smaller. You may also see nesting materials, such as leaves and fur, near the entrance or inside the cavity.

Sounds and Behaviors

Squirrels are active, vocal creatures, especially during the mating season and when defending their nests. If you hear a lot of chatter, rustling, or scurrying sounds in the trees, there’s a good chance that squirrels are nesting nearby. Observing their behaviors, such as carrying nesting materials or defending their territory, can provide additional confirmation.

Gnawing and Damage

Squirrels have a natural instinct to chew, which helps keep their teeth healthy and sharp. Look for signs of gnawing on trees, branches, or man-made structures. Chew marks on nuts, seeds, or fruit can also indicate the presence of squirrels in your area. Additionally, squirrels may cause damage to structures if they are nesting in attics or basements, so be on the lookout for signs of entry points or chewed materials.

By paying attention to these signs, you can gain a better understanding of squirrel nesting in your area and appreciate their resourcefulness. However, it’s important to remember that while squirrels are fascinating creatures, they can also cause problems when nesting in man-made structures. Let’s explore how we can identify a squirrel nest and protect it during winter.

How to identify a squirrel nest

Identifying a squirrel nest can be an exciting and educational experience. By understanding the characteristics of a squirrel nest, you can differentiate it from other animal nests and appreciate the unique adaptations squirrels have developed for survival. Here are some key features to look for:


Squirrel nests are typically found high up in trees or in man-made structures such as attics or basements. Look for nests in the forks or crotches of trees, where they provide good stability and protection. Tree cavities used by squirrels will have a smaller entrance hole compared to those used by other animals. Nests in man-made structures may be found in corners, near openings, or in hidden areas.


Squirrel nests have a distinctive spherical shape, resembling a large bird’s nest. Leaf nests, or dreys, are made of interwoven twigs and lined with leaves, moss, and fur. They are usually compact and well-constructed, providing excellent insulation and protection. Nests in tree cavities may look messier and less organized, but they still contain soft materials such as leaves and fur.


The size of a squirrel nest can vary depending on the species and the materials used. On average, squirrel nests are approximately the size of a basketball. Leaf nests can be slightly larger due to the additional layering of leaves. Nests in tree cavities may be smaller but still offer enough space for the squirrel to curl up and stay warm.

Nesting Materials

Squirrel nests are made of various materials depending on the availability in their environment. Look for twigs, leaves, moss, grass, and fur. Squirrels often use soft materials like leaves and fur to line the inside of their nests, creating a cozy and warm environment. In urban areas, squirrels may also incorporate man-made materials such as insulation or fabric into their nests.

Signs of Activity

If you observe squirrels actively carrying nesting materials or defending a particular area, it’s a strong indication that a nest is nearby. Squirrels can be territorial, especially when they have young in the nest. Watch for behaviors such as squirrels chasing each other or vocalizing to identify potential nest sites.

By understanding these characteristics, you can confidently identify a squirrel nest in your area and appreciate the resourcefulness of these creatures. However, it’s important to remember that disturbing or removing a squirrel nest can have negative consequences for the squirrels and their offspring. Let’s explore how we can protect squirrel nests during winter.

Protecting squirrel nests during winter

Squirrels play an important role in ecosystems by dispersing seeds, controlling insect populations, and providing food for predators. Protecting their nests during winter is essential for their survival and overall ecosystem health. Here are some ways we can help:

Preserve Habitat

Maintaining a healthy and diverse habitat is crucial for squirrels. Protect existing trees and encourage the planting of native tree species that provide suitable nesting sites. Avoid unnecessary tree removals unless they pose a safety risk. By preserving their natural habitat, you provide squirrels with more options for nesting and foraging.

Avoid Disturbing Nests

If you discover a squirrel nest in your attic or basement, it’s important to avoid disturbing it. Squirrels are protected by wildlife laws in many areas, and tampering with their nests can cause stress and harm to the animals. Consult with wildlife professionals who can provide guidance on safe and humane removal methods if necessary.

Prevent Access to Structures

To prevent squirrels from nesting in unwanted areas, take measures to secure your home and other structures. Seal any openings or gaps that squirrels could use for entry. Install wire mesh or other barriers over vents, chimneys, and other potential access points. Trim tree branches that provide easy access to rooftops. By making it difficult for squirrels to enter structures, you decrease the chances of conflict.

Provide Alternative Nesting Options

If you have a large yard or property, consider installing squirrel nesting boxes. These boxes mimic the natural nesting sites squirrels prefer and can provide a safe alternative to nesting in man-made structures. Place the boxes high up in trees and provide bedding material such as leaves or straw to attract squirrels. This not only protects your home but also provides squirrels with suitable nesting options.

Educate Others

Spread awareness about the importance of protecting squirrel nests and the benefits these animals bring to the environment. Encourage neighbors, friends, and community members to appreciate squirrels and take steps to coexist peacefully. By educating others, you can create a more squirrel-friendly environment and ensure their continued survival.

By taking these measures, we can protect squirrel nests during winter and promote a harmonious relationship with these fascinating creatures.

Conclusion: Understanding and respecting squirrel nesting habits in the winter

As winter approaches, it’s important to appreciate the strategies animals use to adapt and survive during the colder months. Squirrels, with their resourcefulness and adaptability, have developed various nesting habits to protect themselves from the harsh elements.

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