Whether you’ve raised a baby squirrel to adulthood or nursed a sick squirrel back to health, at some point you’ll need to return her to the wild where she belongs. However, this isn’t as easy as just dumping your furry friend into the nearest backyard. A successful release depends on both preparing your squirrel for independence and finding a good place for her to live.
When Should a Squirrel Be Released?
Basically, squirrels can be released when they’re able to find food and shelter while avoiding predators. Use the following physical and behavioral signs to determine whether your squirrel is ready to survive on her own.
- Is at least 12 weeks old
- Weighs 350 grams or more
- Appears overall healthy and in good condition
- Will eat natural foods
- Is able to forage successfully
- Can open hard shells, like those of walnuts
- Runs away from humans and pets
Choosing a Good Release Site
When you’re confident that your squirrel is able to be independent, it’s time to scope out a new home for her. Some characteristics of a good release site include a limited number of predators in the area, easy access to safety and shelter, and an abundant source of food. The ideal habitat for gray squirrels contains plenty of oak, hickory, and beech trees.2 These types of trees both provide shelter and produce some of the best nuts for squirrels. Since established squirrels can respond aggressively to newcomers,3 try to find a release spot that has fewer squirrels already in residence.
Preparing Your Squirrel for a Successful Release
To give your squirrel the best chance of thriving in her new home, it’s important to acclimate her to the site prior to release.1 This requires allowing her to spend some time in it in a controlled manner. Simply relocate your squirrel to a large cage on-site for a few days or, if you’ve raised the squirrel and she’s used to being handled, you can even let her roam freely for a few hours every day and she’ll still come back to you. Doing so will both familiarize your squirrel with the area and allow her to accustom herself to out-of-door temperatures and weather conditions.
On the Day of the Release
Squirrels are active during the day and sleep at night,4 so a good time for the actual release is in the morning. Make sure your squirrel is fed and fully hydrated before letting her go. She should be allowed to enter the release site of her own accord. For example, if you’ve housed her in a cage, just leave the door open and let her exit when she’s ready.
1 Cherney, L. & Nieves, M. (1991). How to care for orphaned wild mammals. Iowa State University Veterinarian, 53(2), 94-99. Retrieved from http://lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3394&context=iowastate_veterinarian
2 Webster, D., Parnell, J., & Biggs, W. (1985). Mammals of the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press.
3 Thompson, D. (1978). The social system of the grey squirrel. Behavior, 64(3), 305-328.
4 Reid, F. (2006). A field guide to mammals of North America (4th ed.). New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.