All you need to know about squirrel nests

Grey squirrels are a very familiar sight in the UK. We are just as likely to see a grey squirrel bounding around an urban city park as we are in rural woodland or gardens. In this way, squirrels provide people with an encounter with nature that they might not otherwise have.
Squirrel nest is called a drey
Grey squirrels are a very familiar sight in the UK. We are just as likely to see a grey squirrel bounding around an urban city park as we are in rural woodland or gardens. In this way, squirrels provide people with an encounter with nature that they might not otherwise have.

Sadly, the arrival of grey squirrels contributed to the decline of the red squirrel population in the UK. But both types of squirrels are very intelligent and highly entertaining to watch. As nature lovers, we want to support all the wildlife in our local area. We explain where squirrels live and the benefits they can bring to your garden.

What is a squirrel nest called?

A squirrel nest is called a drey. Dreys are easy to spot, especially in winter when the tree branches are bare: round, messy-looking, nest-like structures! As well as branches, squirrels may also use a squirrel nest box, tree hollows or squirrel houses.

A squirrel drey or nest

Where do squirrels nest?

Squirrels are arboreal which means that they mainly live and build their dreys in trees. Grey squirrels spend less time in the trees than red squirrels. You’ll often see them jumping across your lawn.

Squirrels are most active in the morning or late afternoon. Head to your local wood, scout for dreys and wait quietly – your patience may be rewarded with a special appearance.

You’ll spot grey squirrels nesting everywhere in the UK. Introduced from America in the 1870s, grey squirrels have the monopoly over red squirrels in England, Wales and much of Northern Ireland. Red squirrels are mainly found in Scotland, but you might also be lucky enough to spot them in other special locations, such as:

  • Brownsea Island, in Poole harbour, Dorset
  • The Lake District
  • Northumberland

If you’re on the search for a red squirrel, spring is a good time to look when the branches in these locations are still bare, but they are out and about, looking for food for their babies (kits). The males will be looking to mate again in May, so you’ll also be more likely to see the male squirrels at this time of year. You can also leave out our squirrel food mix in specially-designed squirrel feeders.

A red squirrel collecting nesting material

What do squirrels make their nests from?

Squirrels are opportunistic nest builders. They’ll never stop looking for nest materials (and food!) You’ll see squirrels in your garden hunting for anything that will make their drey warm and cosy. Typical materials include: moss, twigs, leaves, bark, feathers, grass and pine needles. The outside of the nest is a messy ball of twigs which have been loosely woven together from a base of twigs, much like a basket. Squirrels then pack moss and leaves (and even paper if they can find it) on top of the twigs to reinforce the structure. The inside of the nest is then lined with softer materials such as moss.

What does a squirrel nest look like?

Squirrel nests look like twig footballs in the distance! They are often made within the forks of branches for support or close to the trunk. The nests are usually at least six metres from the ground.

Squirrels can also take over a hole in a tree trunk. They simply line the hollow with soft materials to create their nest. If a smaller creature such as a woodpecker has created the hollow, the squirrel will gnaw around the hole to make it bigger.

Two young squirrels peeking out of a nest

Squirrel nests can look slightly different in summer and winter. The summer nest is lighter, flatter and more open, while the winter nest is a bulkier structure to protect against the cold, harsh weather conditions.

How are squirrel nests different from bird nests?

You might have thought that you’ve certainly spotted a messy, twiggy, squirrel nest. But large birds like magpies make similar nests. And to add to the confusion, squirrels and large birds are known to take over each other’s nests, swapping back and forth over the years! So when you’re looking up at the nest from the ground, it’s hard to tell. But closer up, you’d see that birds don’t tend to weave leaves into the twigs as squirrels do. And birds generally nest higher up and further along the branches.

The nests above you are likely to be squirrel nests if you see signs of squirrel activity in the near vicinity. For example:

  • Hearing squirrel sounds (take a listen to the various barks, calls and chatters on YouTube)
  • Seeing visible scratch marks on the tree bark
  • Spotting gnawed pine cones beneath the tree that look like apple cores

Do squirrels hibernate?

Squirrel sitting on top of its nest in winter

Squirrels don’t hibernate, despite their cosy nests. In fact, squirrels are active during the day, all year round. And as squirrels don’t build up fat reserves like animals who hibernate, they depend on their underground stores and a constant stream of food.

If you’re curious as to why you don’t spot as many squirrels in the winter as you do in the summer, it’s simply because squirrels might spend a couple of days in their nests when the temperature gets really cold. During the winter, squirrels share nests to help them keep warm (during the breeding season, they nest alone).

Squirrels are an important part of your local ecosystem. They hide nuts that sometimes grow into new buds. Plus, squirrels are a food source in themselves for birds of prey. And unused squirrel nests are used by other animals, such as large birds. But as well as being an integral part of your garden wildlife, they are a lot of fun to watch!

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