Squirrels are a familiar site in backyards, parks, woodlands, pretty much anywhere with trees. These furry little creatures are skilful at climbing trees, soaring through the air to leap between branches, and scaling trees at high speed to evade ground-based threats. Many of us enjoy observing squirrels’ agility, and celebrate the sight of their bushy tails in our backyards. They can benefit greatly from supplementary feeding by humans, and will gladly take anything left out by us. Therefore, it is important to understand the right kinds of foods to offer them to ensure good health.
We are used to feeding garden birds peanuts, and this is a rich food source that many birds enjoy and can benefit greatly from. But can you feed squirrels peanuts? In short, yes you can but they offer little nutritional value to squirrels and should not form the main part of their diet. Peanuts should only be given occasionally as a treat and in the right form – raw peanuts are a big no! Roasted peanuts are better, but make sure to avoid salted peanuts, and peanuts that have been roasted in excessive amounts of oil.
Today, we aim to answer any questions you may have about whether squirrels should or should not be fed peanuts, in what form, and why. We’ll discover their eating habits and the way in which we can help to supplement their diet, and aid them to successfully get through their winter hibernation.
To better understand the relationship between squirrels and peanuts, we will take a closer look at the ecology of squirrels.
Squirrels belong to the family Sciuridae which also includes chipmunks and prairie dogs. There are many different groups of squirrels including tree squirrels, flying squirrels and ground squirrels, each with their own characteristics and habitat preferences. One common characteristic that makes a squirrel instantly recognisable is the bushy tail which is not just an adorable feature, but serves many survival purposes including:
- Weather protection – to keep the cold, wind, and rain away from their bodies, maintaining their core temperature.
- Counterbalance – when leaping through the trees the tail helps a squirrel to maintain its balance both in mid-air and when gripping branches. Additionally, the tail can act as a parachute, breaking their fall as they dive long distances to the ground or onto lower branches.
- Temperature regulation – when a squirrel is too hot, extra blood can be pumped to their tails to cool their core body temperature.
- Communication – just like a pet cat or dog, squirrels use their tails to communicate. Other squirrels will watch for tail signals from their compatriots, signalling danger nearby.
The rest of a squirrel’s body is incredibly mobile and flexible – they have the ability to rotate their ankles at 180°! Their big eyes indicate excellent vision and therefore they are primarily visual hunters and foragers. They inhabit many regions of Earth including tropical forests and even semi-arid desert regions.
Almost all squirrel species are diurnal (active during the daytime) and arboreal (tree-dwelling). But the amount of time spent in trees is highly dependent on the species – some species rarely descend to ground level, such as Oriental giant squirrels (below). While others spend much of their time foraging at ground level, such as African palm squirrels.
Squirrel Feeding Habits And Natural Diet
In most habitats, squirrels are herbivorous, consuming predominantly plant material. However, they will also feed on insects, bird eggs, carrion and, in some cases, small vertebrates like baby birds – this technically makes them omnivores. They will opportunistically search for nuts, seeds, fruits, and fungi, and many plant parts like buds, leaves, bark, nectar, and flowers.
Squirrels possess the large incisors and powerful jaws commonly seen in other rodent species such as rats and marmots. These allow them to effectively chisel their way through hard nut shells and scrape the cambium (the fresh, living layer of bark) from trees. These characteristic incisors are constantly growing throughout a squirrel’s life, so gnawing on hard shells and barks helps to keep them in healthy condition.
In the fall, in the Northern Hemisphere, squirrels will commonly forage excess food and bury it, to dig up in the spring. During this time of year, sources of food rich in protein and fat may be hard to find, so buried nuts can benefit them greatly when they emerge from hibernation. To prepare for hibernation they will also feed to gain weight which will carry them through the cold, tough winter months.
The group of squirrels you are most likely to see in your backyard, and generally around urban areas are tree squirrels, for example Grey squirrels or Red squirrels if you live in the US or some regions of Europe respectively. These species are successful synanthropes – they thrive in areas close to people, benefitting from their interaction with humans. This is usually through opportunistic feeding – by foraging for scraps of food dropped by people (or stealing food from bird feeders) or intentional feeding whereby people have left food out for them.
Feeding peanuts to birds is a common and safe practice, but can you feed peanuts to squirrels? And if so, in what form should you provide the peanuts? Let’s take a closer look…
Feeding Peanuts To Squirrels: Is It Safe?
When offering food to squirrels it is important to consider the potential consequences. By encouraging them to feed in your backyard or in the park, you will be helping to remove their fear of humans and improving their boldness. This could increase the risk of them being run over in areas with busy roads or exposing them to predation by cats. In addition, it may lead to them stealing feed intended for birds, and dominating bird feeding areas which will discourage birds.
If you have taken these factors into consideration and would still like to offer squirrels some food sources, providing them with valuable resources for a successful winter hibernation, and improving their health and wellbeing, it is vital to offer them the right types of food.
Like us, squirrels need a varied diet to achieve optimum health. They cannot digest cellulose efficiently, so need plenty of sources of protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Plenty of unsweetened and unsalted nuts and seeds, fruit and vegetables can be of great benefit to them including:
- Hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, pistachios
- Sunflower and pumpkin seeds
- Chopped apple, grapes, raisins, watermelon
- Carrots, spinach, celery, green beans, bean sprouts, cucumber
Feeding areas and equipment should be cleaned and disinfected regularly to prevent the transfer or disease. It is also not a good idea to hand-feed squirrels as it may impair their ability to find food for themselves in the wild.
Can Squirrels Eat Peanuts?
Yes, squirrels can technically eat peanuts, but these should be given rarely as a treat item. Peanuts should not form the main part of a squirrel’s diet as they are not very nutritionally valuable for squirrels. It is also important to offer them peanuts in the right form.
Peanuts are not actually nuts, but legumes. This means they have different properties including being high in fiber and some essential vitamins and protein minerals. They also contain antioxidants and both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, which can have multiple health benefits.
Can Squirrels Eat Raw Peanuts?
No! Raw peanuts should be avoided because they contain aflatoxin – a carcinogenic which can damage the liver of squirrels. This fungal toxin inhibits the absorption of protein by disrupting the production of an essential enzyme – trypsin – produced in the pancreas.
You should therefore ensure you are feeding squirrels aflatoxin-free peanuts.
Can Squirrels Eat Roasted Peanuts?
Dry roasted peanuts bought in stores tend to contain lots of sodium which is bad for squirrels (explained in more detail below). Conversely, oil-roasted peanuts can contain excessive amounts of oil and therefore high amounts of calories.
When choosing between the two, it is better to opt for oil-roasted peanuts as excess calories are preferable over high doses of sodium when it comes to squirrel feeding. But make sure the oil content is not excessive! If you want to be sure, you can roast raw, hulled peanuts (those without shells) yourself. Find some instructions on how to do this safely here.
Store bought roasted peanuts can also contain flavourings and sugar – you should avoid giving these to squirrels as too much refined sugar is bad for their health too.
Can Squirrels Eat Salted Peanuts?
As a general rule, animals (whether wild or domestic) should not be fed salty foods. Squirrels can safely tolerate a small amount of salt, but salted peanuts contain an overload of salt which their kidneys cannot deal with.
Whether you are feeding squirrels nuts or peanuts, you should carefully check they are not salted. If you are unsure, it is safe to try a bit yourself to double check for salt content.
Here is a good place to note that, when feeding wildlife, it is strongly recommended to provide a fresh water source for them to drink, close to a feeding area. This will aid their digestion and help them to maintain their hydration.
Shelled Or Hulled Peanuts For Squirrels?
Although it can be good for squirrels to feed on shelled nuts, helping to wear down their ever-growing incisors, it can also be risky to provide shelled peanuts for them. Sometimes, a toxic mould can be found inside the shells, invisible to the human eye.
Peanuts roasted in their shells can be a less risky treat for squirrels, and some squirrels even enjoy chewing down the shells along with the peanuts (watch a video here!). More information on shelled peanuts for squirrels can be found here.
If your local squirrels are also foraging for themselves and not totally reliant on the food you provide for them, it is likely they have other sources to help keep their teeth in check. Therefore, hulled (or un-shelled) peanuts could be a better, safer option.
Where Can You Buy Peanuts For Squirrels?
If you buy peanuts in bulk to feed to squirrels, this can be an economic way to do it because peanuts should only be fed in small amounts and rarely, as a treat item. Bulk bags of peanuts can be easily and cheaply bought online – just make sure you check they are safe for squirrels to eat using the guidelines laid out in this article. Or alternatively buy raw peanuts and roast them carefully to make them safe for squirrel consumption.
Local backyard feed suppliers often stock raw peanuts, shelled or hulled.
How To Feed Squirrels Peanuts – The Logistics
When setting up feeding areas for squirrels, it is recommended to distribute a number of feeding points around your backyard. This will prevent squirrels fighting over food and reduce competition. By using a specialised squirrel feeder, this will ensure only squirrels can access the food and other animals are unable to steal it.
If you do not mind other wildlife taking advantage of the feeding opportunity, the peanuts can be left in the open, in a dish or on a raised platform.
Keep these feeding areas clean to prevent disease transmission, and replace old peanuts if they become mouldy or water-logged.