Do Squirrels Hibernate | Facts and Myths Debunked

Written by Thomas Matthews

Squirrels are typically active whenever you see them. You may see them scurrying back and forth in your yard eating something. However, during cooler seasons, you may find their behavior strange. You may start seeing them burying their nuts and other foods. This is their way of stacking up food for the winter season.

Most squirrels don’t hibernate except for ground squirrels. Before the cold weather comes, the majority of them essentially store food and remain in their nests until the winter is over. They stash their food in various spots around their nests to ensure they have enough food when the winter season comes.

If they’re not hibernating, you could be wondering how they can survive and what they’re doing during the winter season. See the given details below.

Squirrels During Winter

Squirrels During Winter

During sunny days, you might notice the squirrels’ frantic movements. They’re busy roaming around places searching, eating, and collecting foods, especially nuts and seeds.

What Do Squirrels Do During Winter?

  • Squirrels love to hoard whatever food they find and bury them away for rainy and cold seasons. They bury their food in different places around their nest and get them back once foods are scarce during the cold season. With this being said, they can typically survive the winter seasons with their stashed foods.
  • Most squirrels begin to fatten themselves during the cool weather of fall. This ‘fattening up’ serves as extra energy to warm themselves during winter, which others mistakenly take as hibernation. 
  • Ground squirrels like the Arctic squirrels of Alaska spend all the winter months hibernating.

Hibernation in a Nutshell

What Is Hibernation?

Hibernation refers to the long-term dormancy or inactivity of an animal, particularly during the winter seasons. However, not all animals go under hibernation, like the case of most squirrels. 

During hibernation, animals lower their body temperatures and slow their heart rates and metabolisms. This typically happens every winter when food supplies are scarce. 

Hibernation of Animals Every Winter Season

Some animals like bears hibernate every winter season due to food scarcity and wake up when a substantial food supply is available. Apart from bears, the following animals are also considered to be hibernators:

  • Woodchuck
  • Little brown bat
  • Jumping mouse
  • Eastern chipmunk
  • Poorwill bird (resides in western North America)

It is believed that hibernators have a compound in their blood known as Hibernation Induction Triggers (HIT). HIT serves as a trigger sign that let them know when it’s time to prepare for hibernation.

This is why animals that undergo hibernation often know when to fatten themselves to prepare for winter. So, when the winter season arrives, they’ll have enough body fats to keep them warm and energized.

On the other hand, some animals store extra foods as early as summer for their winter consumption. This case is typically similar to squirrels that stash their food in their hideouts and other places near their dens.

Where Do Squirrels Live In the Winter?

Where Do Squirrels Live

Squirrels are builders. They build themselves shelters from branches and twigs in the limb or hole of a tree. If given a chance, they can even construct their nests in the attic or barn.

During the winter, they make sure their nests are snug and warm. They prefer to nest alone, except when they already have young squirrels of their own. However, if the weather gets too intense, they nestle together in a den to keep themselves warmer. 

Since squirrels typically stay in the den for too long, some people assume that they’re hibernating. Although they give too much time to plan and make their dens before the winter comes, they never hibernate in them.

Things Squirrels Do Before Winter Season

Before the winter season, squirrels are busy scavenging, eating, and storing food. You may have seen them from time to time, frantically scurrying from one place to another. However, these are not only the things they’re doing during good weather conditions. 

Squirrels are pretty clever animals and do things that are beneficial to them during the winter months. Below are some things squirrels do before the winter season to help them cope with the incoming inclement weather.

Nest Building

Nest Building

Squirrels love to stay warm even during cold, frosty months. Thus, they ensure to have a comfortable and warm den to stay in during the cold months. They start building their nests in tall trees with leaves, twigs, and moss. 

How Do Squirrels Build a Nest?

  • First, squirrels build their nests by weaving green twigs. After that, they add moss and leaves on top of the weaved green twigs. Then, around the insulated core, vines and the external skeleton of twigs are built. 
  • Squirrels usually build more than one nest in cavity dens. This is to protect them from harsh weather better and avoid predators in the process.

Collecting Food Supplies

Collecting Food Supplies

As stated above, squirrels are clever animals. They do things that are helpful to them in the long run. Tree squirrels, in particular, are surprisingly ingenious. 

Hoarding Food Supplies

Squirrels collect and hoard their food supplies for winter in different places around their nests. They also often pretend to bury food in one place, but in reality, bury it in other areas to outsmart their rivals. This way, their foods are safe and ready for the cold months to come.

They often hoard the following foods as their supplies for inclement weather, where foods are often scarce:

  • Several types of berries
  • Various types of nuts
  • Seeds
  • Insects, and more

Though they buried their supplies in various places, they can still point to where they buried them. Squirrels have a heightened sense of smell, which they can use in tracking their caches and more.

Fatten Themselves

Fatten Themselves

At the start of the cold weather during fall, you might notice many squirrel activities. This is the time when they start to fatten themselves to prepare for the winter season.

Why do they do this? Squirrels particularly fatten themselves as the winter approaches to store enough fat. When food is limited, the stored fat can be converted to energy, which can help the squirrels to survive. 

The fats also help in warming up their bodies, preventing their temperatures from dropping drastically. With their energy and body heat, they can continue to scamper in the cold season to go and get their well-hidden food supplies.

Why Can’t Squirrels Be Seen During Winter if They Don’t Hibernate?

Most squirrels are active during the daytime and rise early to do their scavenging routine. However, they’re typically idle and choose to stay in their nests as long as possible during winter. They only go out when it’s time to get their food supply from their hoarding place.

If you want to see squirrels during winter, you may try the following:

  1. Look into tree hollows, where squirrels can typically be seen. The hollows give them much comfort and security against severe weather and possible predators.
  1. Scan the limbs of trees for volumes of leaves and twigs, where you may spot a squirrel family. Nonetheless, as long as the temperature stays above freezing point, you can still spot some squirrels coming up and down from trees. 

As long as the snow doesn’t start falling heavily, you might still see some squirrels recovering their dispersed food supplies.

Each Squirrel Is Different During Winter Season

Because each squirrel species is unique, they all have distinct habits, whether hibernating or resting in the winter.

There are around 200 species of squirrels. However, this section will focus on the most common ones.

Ground Squirrels

Ground squirrels are squirrels that hibernate throughout the winter. They hibernate for around eight months to survive the harsh, stormy weather during the winter months.

Their hibernation will begin at the end of July. They won’t come out of hibernation until late in the spring (around March).

Gray Squirrels

Gray squirrels do not hibernate. Instead, they are relying on fat reserves and mast stockpiles to get through the long, harsh winters. They can be spotted outside during the winter months if the weather is not too cold (below 30 degrees F) or not raining or snowing.

Red Squirrels

In terms of winter preparation and behavior, red squirrels and gray squirrels are similar. They do not hibernate. In preparation for the incoming winter season, they are also collecting and storing food.

The distinction between red and gray squirrels is that red squirrels prefer to build their nests in thick evergreen trees. They like to construct nests in tree cavities for improved security.

Related: How to Get Rid of Squirrels? | Squirrel Control Methods

List of Sources

Frohn, J. (2018). The Year of the Gray Squirrel. University of New Hampshire.
Gray and Red Squirrels in Massachusetts. Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Living with wildlife: Tree squirrels. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Thomas Matthews
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