Tracking the predators of gray squirrels

A gray squirrel (Purdue University)

Gray squirrels are abundant in woods, older suburbs and hedgerows in southeastern Pennsylvania. Several kinds of birds and mammals prey on squirrels, and a medley of other smaller creatures as well, helping keep the numbers of those animals under control. Several predatory creatures consistently eating gray squirrels are good news to people who think those rodents are pests in their lawns and gardens. Over the years, I have seen four predators attacking, eating or carrying dead squirrels in their mouths, presumably after they killed them.

Red-tailed hawks are big, diurnal birds of prey that catch and eat field mice, brown rats, Eastern chipmunks, gray squirrels and other critters small enough to handle. But red-tails seem to specialize in attacking gray squirrels, an animal big enough to be worth this raptor's time and energy, yet small enough to be readily dealt with. I once saw a red-tail swoop down on a gray squirrel on a lawn as I drove by the two of them. Upon impact, they scuffled briefly, but the hawk was triumphant. I drove on, leaving the red-tail with its meal.

One winter late afternoon I was in a woodlot looking for whatever animals might happen to show themselves. At sunset a few gray squirrels were still rummaging through fallen leaves in their quest for last minute nuts. A great horned owl hooted a couple of times and was answered by another, more distant owl in the woods. Suddenly, I saw the closer owl plummet from its perch on a tree limb, seize, stab and crush an unsuspecting squirrel in its eight strong, sharp talons. The owl then flew into a bare tree with its dead victim in its claws. There it ate its prey as darkness slowly enveloped the scene.

Free-roaming house cats usually prey on mice and small birds, but they can catch larger critters as well. One winter day while driving through Lancaster County farmland, I saw a house cat carrying a dead gray squirrel in its mouth across a mowed hayfield. The cat was coming away from a hedgerow of tall trees and bushes where it probably ambushed the squirrel. It most likely was taking its prize to the safety of its farmyard where it would eat it. House cats should not be allowed to catch critters in the wild because they are depriving truly wild predators of the only source of food they have.

One morning in May, I watched a female mink delivering white-footed mice, one at a time, in her mouth to her young down a wood chuck hole in the soil near a creek. But on one trip back to her young, she carried a dead gray squirrel. That squirrel was almost as big as she, but the mink had no problem carrying that prey across the ground and down into her nursery. She must have ambushed the squirrel on yet another mouse raid in the woods bordering the creek.

These are predators I have seen preying on the omnipresent and abundant gray squirrels. There are others. We just have to be in the right place at the right time to see them in action.

Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a naturalist with the Lancaster County Department of Parks and Recreation. His column appears every other Sunday in Lifestyle.