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Do Squirrels Hibernate? Here's What They Do All Winter

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Squirrels are equal parts adorable and annoying. They raid our bird feeders, dig up our yards, and eat our apples before they even get a chance to ripen. When the weather starts to turn cooler in the autumn, we can see them starting to bury their nuts and put on a little more chub than usual. Both behaviors seem to be at odds with one another in some ways. Why would they need to put food away if they're just going to fatten up and sleep through winter? It makes one wonder: Do squirrels hibernate?

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Do squirrels hibernate?

The short answer is no, not really. Squirrels do not hibernate, per se, but their behavior indicates that they do prepare themselves for a long winter. Hibernation has several definitions within the animal kingdom but essentially, all it refers to is a slowing of the animal’s metabolism. It is often used in wintertime when food and water are scarce, and energy needs to be conserved until such resources are replenished. 

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Not all animals evince this behavior in winter, however. Tortoises, turtles, some bear species, groundhogs, and hedgehogs all fatten themselves up and sleep through the cold winter months. They don’t sleep all the way through, though — many of these animals do emerge to meet their needs for food and water, though these needs are severely reduced at this time. Other animals hibernate over the course of several seasons or even years. 

According to a 2008 study, cicadas have something called diapause, which is an extended period of extreme inactivity that can last many years as the insects mature to adulthood. 

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Why don’t squirrels hibernate?

Squirrels don’t hibernate because they don’t really need to. Their preparations are such that once the winter does arrive, they will have enough in their larders and their stomachs to outlast the frost. Like the Starks of Winterfell, squirrels know that “Winter is coming” and so they make sure that their nests and hoards are full and warm for the coming frost. They know this because of their internal photo-neuroendocrine system, identified in a 1998 study, which allows them to feel like the length of the day changes. Once the fall hits, they know it’s time to start prepping. 

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Where do squirrels live in the winter?

Squirrels sleep in nests built of twigs, leaves, and moss. They build these nests in tall trees, in attics, or the rooftops of sheds, and sleep in them year-round. According to the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, some squirrels have been known to keep multiple nests in order to have multiple backups. This is so that they have several avenues of escape from predators, and in case one or more nests are compromised by humans or nest thieves. 

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It is only as winter approaches that squirrels need to ready their nest to be warmer for winter. If they have multiple nests, they will choose the warmest, which means you might find them hiding out in your attic while you’re fishing out the Christmas lights this year. If you do, don’t panic, just call animal control. Even if they release them into the cold, it’s likely most squirrels will have a backup pad somewhere else just in case. 

What type of things do squirrels store in winter?

In addition to putting on a good bit of weight prior to winter, tree squirrels will also make sure that their hoard is plenty full just in case. Squirrels practice something called scatter hoarding, placing nuts, seeds, berries, bones, and insects all around their nests so that they can easily get to them. But if you’re wondering whether or not squirrels also scatter their hoard elsewhere in their territory, they do.

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Squirrels will begin the hoarding process by burying much of their collected booty all over your yard. They do this in an effort to throw off would-be thieves and mislead them into thinking that once they’ve found one nut, they’ve found them all. According to the Royal Society Open Science, most squirrels even remember where they buried their food by way of a technique called spatial chunking. They will then return to dig up these nuts in the warm, daylight hours of winter. 

Make no mistake, squirrels are industrious, meticulous creatures with backup plans on their backup plans. So the next time you look at a squirrel failing to get into a squirrel-proof bird feeder and think you “got em” — think again. That squirrel is already three steps ahead of you.

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