I have had a good number of gray squirrel encounters this summer starting with a family of six that have come into my front yard nearly every morning. This group (two adults and four rapidly growing (now fully grown) young) come in early for the morning serving of shelled corn and sunflower seeds and stay late into the afternoon for any possible refills. Mostly they feed on the ground with jumps up into the bird bath for drinks of water on hot days, but if the spilled ground seed gets too limiting they go through incredibly athletic machinations to get up to the feeders to eat.
There were no “summer born” second litters in my gray squirrel community this year. The heat and the drought must have made overall resources too limiting to support a second mating and litter. Considering the amount of (very expensive!) sunflower seeds they consumed just rearing the spring litter, I think that their family planning decision was a very wise move.
We were over at Rob and Michele Bridges’ house at the end of June and observed some other gray squirrel behaviors. Rob and Michele have some old clothesline pole holes out in their backyard that are covered with heavy, lead discs. These lead caps are favorite yard toys of their gray squirrels! Rob has to regularly hunt around the yard to locate the squirrel-transported discs. Further, each of the discs is heavily scored with tooth marks from the squirrels’ incisors. Squirrels are known to gnaw on metal like the lead sheathing on roof vent covers or even metal roof flashing. Cohorts or families of squirrels, apparently, pick up and pass along these metal gnawing habits to their offspring. So, if you have squirrels that chew the metal parts of your house (or clothesline pole covers) they will likely keep doing it generation after generation.
The question is “why?”
There is no nutritional value in lead. In fact, it is a widely known neurotoxin. It is likely that the shards of lead scraped off of the pole covers pass through the squirrels’ short digestive systems too rapidly to allow significant absorption, but there is the possibility of long-term lead accumulation which could reach harmful levels not only for the squirrel but also for any squirrel predators.
Some authorities say that lead “tastes sweet” to a squirrel (although I have found no actual evidence for this assertion). Others describe lead gnawing as a habit that grows out of the squirrels’ need to constantly grind down their continuously growing incisor teeth.
My squirrels have not developed a metal gnawing culture. They did chew open one of my plastic birdfeeders once in an attempt to get to the last bits of seeds inside of it. Not letting the feeders stand empty has prevented a reoccurrence of this feeder-gnawing behavior and, fortunately, no lessons were passed on to the young squirrels as a result.