Construction of a Squirrel Nest


April 2003


Short lengths were being cut from the tips of branches in one of our oak trees.  There they were, scattered around the tree trunk; their leaves still green and fresh. These were not the "buzz-saw" cuts made by worms that live in the hickory trees out back.  These were clean 45-degree cuts of the same kind a beaver would make. Now, no beaver ever climbed that high to cut anything.  We picked up the little limbs and stacked them.  After lunch, there were more scattered in the same area.  It was time to stand back and watch.


It didn't take long to spot a squirrel building a nest.  Maybe she was in a hurry.  Maybe this was her first attempt at construction.  One thing for sure, she was wasting a lot of energy.  Some of the pieces she cut were too large to use, so she dropped them.  Were they mistakes or was she getting them out of her way?  Others slipped from her grip and fell to the ground.  One short piece was so wide that she walked backwards to drag it almost to the nest site before discarding it.  Her agility was amazing.  At one point, she cut a straight leafless twig about 18 inches long.  In order to get it to the nest, she backed up to drag it past several obstacles.  At one point, using her front paws as hands, she lifted it over her head while slowing moving backward.  Even as we watched, this was hard to believe.


The location of the nest seemed ideal--50 feet up in a wide crotch.  As she struggled to anchor each new piece, the whole nest would shake.  Then she would be off in search of another small limb.  She cut mostly green pieces as she enlarged the framework of her nest.  We saw her take one strand of moss to weave in among the leaves.  I had always wondered how a squirrel kept so many leaves in place around the nest.  Now I have seen how a nest built of live limbs with green leaves can provide excellent shelter with very little moss and dried material needed for a cozy bed.  As the leaves and twigs dry, the compact arrangement helps to keep the leaves in place in spite of high winds.  She may have been inexperienced, working harder than was necessary, but she finished that nest and moved in.  I spent some time studying it closely with binoculars.  If I were a nest inspector I would say that it couldn't possibly stay in place and would blow down with the first gust of wind.  I concede squirrels are gifted with engineering ability beyond my understanding.


The building boom spread to others.  Some that were not building new nests were scurrying up their trees with mouths full of leaves and little sticks, adding insulation to old nests.  The next day we happened to look out the window as a squirrel came down an oak tree with a bundle of small twigs in her mouth.  We couldn't believe it when she took one of the twigs inside the cap of the propane tank.  Wrens have built there but the space is surely too small for a squirrel's nest.  To discourage her wasting energy trying to build there, we removed the two cuttings we found and hoped she would build in another site.  By the next day, we noticed a squirrel building a nest about 65 feet up in a nearby tree.  The only accident that we know about was when a squirrel lost her hold and almost hit Bill as she fell.  The little gal landed with a splat within two feet of him. She regained her composure and climbed about three feet up the tree from which she had fallen.  Then she climbed to a fork and stretched out to rest.