NC State Extension Publications

Habitat Requirements

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The eastern gray squirrel thrives in both urban and rural settings across North Carolina. Of the seven species of squirrels native to North Carolina, the eastern gray squirrel is the most abundant and widely distributed. It lives in a variety of forest types but favors areas with mature hardwood trees.

Mast-bearing hardwood trees are the most important element of squirrel habitat. Hard mast is any hard fruit such as acorns, beechnuts, and hickory nuts, all of which provide critical fall and winter food for squirrels. Other types of foods include flowers, buds, fleshy fruit, cones and samaras (fruit of maple trees), which are eaten when available. Squirrels also use natural cavities, in both live and dead trees, for nesting and cover.

Tips for Improving Squirrel Habitat

Mature hardwood

  • Retain hardwood or mixed pine / hardwood types
  • Create 10 to 40 acre stands
  • Keep 13 or more of tract in 50 year or older age classes
  • In pine types, create or retain hardwood patches (5 acres or more)

Mast production

  • Control ground cover by mechanical methods, such as mowing
  • Plant or select for mast producing trees along fences, streams, and field edges.

Direct improvements

  • Erect nest boxes where cavity trees are lacking (Figure 1, Figure 2)
  • Protect den trees
  • Use crop tree release around hard mast trees,especially individuals known to be consistent and prolific masters (producers).
  • Plant mast producing trees

Intermediate treatments

  • Thin frequently, including the use of crop tree release, for larger crowns and increased nut production
  • Retain mast-producing tree species in thinnings

Squirrel Box Tips

  • Place dry leaves or straw on nest box floor
  • Mount boxes 20 - 25 feet above ground in suitable trees. Suspend box with a nail and metal hanger attached to the back of the box
  • Use a crimped wire to attach box base that can loosen as the tree grows
  • Erect nest boxes in habitat where there are less than three natural dens per acre
  • Construct nest boxes of decay resistant woods (cedar, cypress, etc.)
  • Inspect, clear, and replace litter in the nest boxes each summer

Illustration of construction

Figure 1. Squirrel box construction.

Illustration of how to cut board to create pieces for box

Figure 2. Squirrel box layout for 1 x 10 x 8 foot board.

Squirrel populations fluctuate with changing yields of hard mast, especially acorns. When mast is not available, squirrels will eat other fruits and berries, flower parts, buds, bark, roots, mushrooms, and animal matter. Variety in tree species is essential for habitat stability. Listed below are some of the most common food sources throughout the year.

Seasonal foods of gray squirrels.
Spring Summer Fall Winter
Acorns (red oaks) X X X
Acorns (white oaks) X X
Hickory & Beech X X X
Walnut X X
Buds & Flowers X X
Fleshy fruits & Berries X
Fungi (Mushrooms) X X X
Yellow poplar seeds X X X

Photo of squirrel in a yard setting eating

Squirrels are common in the urban setting

Liessa Bowen  CC BY-NC 4.0

Den trees are essential to squirrels for winter shelter, escape cover from predators, and rearing of young. Natural den cavities begin to appear in 40-50 year old stands. Although leaf nests are also used, the survival rate of young is 40% lower in leaf nests compared to cavities. Frequently, squirrels will claim 2 or 3 dens at the same time. Moderate to dense cover, including midstory and canopy trees, is preferred for concealment from aerial predators suchs as hawks and owls. Dense tree cover also allows gray squirrels to move freely through the canopy. On average, about half of the den cavities identifiable from the ground are suitable for raising young. Optimal habitat has 2 to 3 suitable cavities per acre.

While gray squirrels frequently use open water when available, daily needs can be satisfied from other sources such as dew and succulent plant material. Lack of surface water is not a limiting factor in squirrel habitat.

Home Range

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The home range of gray squirrels varies from 1.5 to 8 acres and is usually smaller where populations are high. Populations develop social hierarchies or "pecking orders" influenced by age and sex of the animals. Dominant animals usually have larger home ranges.

photo of squirrel beneath a tree canopy

Squirrel feeding beneath a tree canopy

Liessa Bowen  CC BY-NC 4.0

Species That Benefit From Gray Squirrel Management

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Numerous game and nongame species with habitat requirements similar to squirrels benefit from squirrel management. Rather than focusing on a single species, habitat management plans should emphasize the communities of which squirrels are a part. The following species are common squirrel associates:

Songbirds Raptors Game species
Woodpeckers Cooper's hawk Raccoon
Wood thursh Sharp-shinned hawk Wild turkey
Acadian flycatcher Red-tailed hawk Wood duck
White-breasted nuthatch Red-shouldered hawk White-tailed deer
Brown-headed nuthatch Barred owl
Hooded warbler Great horned owl
Parula warbler Screech owl
Red-eyed vireo


Professor (Wildlife)
Forestry & Environmental Resources
Extension Professor
Forestry & Environmental Resources
Wildlife biologist

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Publication date: Jan. 1, 2019
Revised: Oct. 27, 2023

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