Do you ever hear that tell-tale pitter-patter of tiny feet from the attic? Some squirrels might just be setting up camp for the winter right overhead.
These pesky little creatures are fast, agile, and acrobatic: the perfect combination for sneaking into attics through tiny entryways. When they’re just outside, squirrels are usually just a nuisance – albeit an annoying one – but can become quite dangerous and hazardous when they make their way indoors. Most often, they head right for the attic: someplace dry, warm, away from predators outside and all of the household action down below, and easily accessible via the roof and nearby trees.
Before these squirrel-squatters get inside – and even after they already have – there are some easy, humane solutions to keeping your attic creature-free during the colder months.
Why Are There So Many Squirrels?
This season, if you’re noticing even more squirrels in the neighborhood than usual – climbing around on the roof, taking bites out of decorative gourds, ripping through the garden – you’re right. There’s been a population eruption of the gray squirrel in parts of the eastern US this year, according to pest expert George Rambo. While squirrels normally only give birth to two litters each year – one in the spring and one in the fall – this year, they produced a third in the summer. In some ways, their population boost is linked to climate change: last winter was mild, which meant that nut-growing trees produced more nuts than usual (a “bumper” crop), so squirrels had abundant resources to feed on, encouraging them to increase their populations.
As a species, however, squirrels have a relatively high mortality rate and often only live for a few months. As the colder weather sneaks back in and nuts get fewer and further between, their population numbers are expected to even out again.
But, while their numbers are high, it’s a good idea to take preventative action to protect your property and keep these critters outside rather than in.
What Damage Do They Cause to Homes?
Squirrels want to come inside for the same reasons that mice and other common household pests do: they’re looking for warmth, shelter, food, and a place to build their nests. In the process, they can cause major damage to the structural integrity of homes by tearing at insulation and wood, chewing through electrical wires, and destroying furniture or belongings in attic storage. They’re known to push in the bricks on chimneys, and can easily ruin terra cotta, slate, aluminum, and shingles, necessitating expensive home repairs. Perhaps most importantly, they bring in scraps and waste from the outdoors, and leave their own urine and droppings in your living space, which creates a health hazard. What can initially seem like a minor issue of noise from the attic can quickly escalate into a more serious problem.
How Can You Keep Them Out?
Find and Seal Points of Entry
If possible, it’s best to do this in the summer before the little critters are looking for a warm winter spot. On the outside of the home, look for any fist-sized holes; on the inside, check for gaps of similar sizes. Cracks are often given away by light seeping through from the outside. Squirrels are notorious for fitting through very small holes, so check areas that commonly have tiny gaps: the meeting points of siding, the openings where pipes and cables enter the home, under the eaves, and the gaps around windows and doors. Seal these with fiber cement or sheet metal flashing.
Vents are another favorite entry point. To seal, stretch hardware cloth over the vent (with extra fabric all the way around in case they try to rip at it) and secure it with a staple gun.
Check Out the Chimney
Squirrels love to come down through the chimneys, attracted by the warmth coming from inside, or by the shelter they provide from the wind. If the chimney hasn’t been used in a long time, they might even make a nest in it.
To keep them from climbing down for a surprise visit to your living room, install caps on chimneys. If you hear them already inside, make lots of noise to encourage them to get out through the top, or hang a rope down from the top of the chimney so they can climb up and out.
Check the Trees
If you’ve ever watched an epic tree-high squirrel race, you know how far those little guys can jump. Trees surrounding the home can be an easy way for them to access the roof and whatever crevices might be up there. Assess the trees around your house and see if any branches are within six to eight feet of it (that’s about how far squirrels can jump). Consider trimming back those that come right up to the house if so.
To keep squirrels from climbing up the tree, wrap a sheet of metal (around two feet high, or about double the length of a squirrel’s body) around the trunk about six-eight feet above the ground. At this height, a squirrel shouldn’t be able to jump over it. Make sure to assess how tightly it’s fastened around the tree every couple of months to make sure it isn’t impeding growth or cutting into the trunk; or, attach the ends of the sheet of metal with springs, giving the tree room to grow. Do this to all trees within jumping distance of that initial tree as well, if possible, so they don’t tree-hop their way to the roof.
Strong odors like white and black pepper, garlic, peppermint, and hot peppers will deter squirrels (and many other household and garden pests, at that). Most chemical repellents sold at garden centers and hardware stores mimic the natural scents of predators – mostly their urine – like coyotes and foxes, but natural options work well too. To make your own, mix 1 part hot sauce with 64 parts water (or, one tablespoon per one quart). Transfer to a spray bottle and spray anywhere animals enter or leave droppings. Squirrels also hate the smell of apple cider vinegar, and some soaked rags placed around the attic will keep them out. Natural remedies fade much faster than chemicals so you’ll want to replenish the rags or re-spray at least twice a week.
Remove Sources of Food
You can’t do much about a big fruit- or nut-producing tree near the house, but making indoor food inaccessible will remove a major selling point for squirrels interested in breaking in. They’re also very attracted to bird feeders, which are an easy food source. Try squirrel-proof feeders – many of which are accessible only by flight – placed far away from the home and far from trees so they can’t be easily jumped onto.
If They’re Already Inside, How Can You Get Them Out?
If you already hear the pitter-patter of little feet overhead, keep up the preventative tactics, like the repellent – you’ll want to drive them out while also preventing them from getting back in.
Use Light to Your Advantage
If you notice squirrels trying to get in, try some very bright lights in the attic. Shine them into corners or places where they’ve tried to make nests.
Make Some Noise
The most low-budget solution to driving away squirrels: make a huge racket. Bang on the ceiling and walls, yell, bang pots and pans, or turn on a radio/TV to full volume. Playing a radio overnight in the attic will likely make them want to leave.
Ultrasonic noise machines designed for rodents are another popular, hands-off solution, although it can be a bit pricey. These machines release high-pitched sounds that are inaudible to humans, but irritating to some animals, driving them out of the room. The noise might bother household pets if placed too close to your living space, but you’ll likely be able to tell if the sound is bothering your furry friends.
Don’t Trap Them Inside
Before sealing up your house from further invasion, you’ll want to figure out whether the squirrels are inside or outside; you don’t want to seal up all points of exit and leave them trapped in the attic with nowhere to go (and, giving them ample time to keep destroying your house).
Squirrels usually leave during the warmest parts of the day, so that’s a good time to do an inspection. Plug entry points that you’ve identified with scrap paper. In a day or two, if the paper shows signs of disruption, the squirrels have probably been going in and out; if not, there are probably no squirrels actively going in and out of the attic, so you’re good to seal up the holes.
Set Some Traps
If the squirrels aren’t leaving on their own, try a humane trap to capture them, making sure to check on it at least once a day. When you release the squirrel, you’ll want to do so after sealing the hole so it won’t come right back inside. Ultimately, it’s best to release them near your house rather than driving them far away, as counter-intuitive as that might seem. Squirrels become aggressive when outsiders enter their territory, so if you move it to a new location, it might be killed. Plus, new squirrels will begin populating your yard in the absence of the former squirrel, and you’ll start the whole cycle all over again.
Removing a Nest With Babies
Before sealing your attic off, you should also make sure that there are no nests inside. If the mother is trapped outside, she could cause more damage to the home by trying to get back in, or the babies could die without any care.
If you don’t want to wait until the babies grow up and leave on their own (which can take about three months), you’ll need to encourage the mother to move them herself. Play a talk radio station loud enough to fill the whole attic and shine a bright light on the nest. All of this should encourage the mother to move them herself to another location. Alternatively, call a local wildlife center that is trained in rehabilitating animals and can safely remove the nest and assist the babies. You should not, however, attempt to remove the nest by yourself; if the nest is brought outside, the babies might be put in jeopardy, or not found by the mother. You also risk getting attacked or encountering bacteria and diseases.
If you notice a lot of damage occurring to your home or a squirrel consistently trying to get inside after being removed, there’s probably a nest in there, and you should call in a professional.
Take note of rules and regulations in your area before taking action. Some states actually require permits to trap and move animals from inside – even from your own home – including Maryland
Removing a Squirrel From an Inhabited Room
Sometimes, a particularly adventurous squirrel will skip the attic and head right downstairs. In that case, remove all pets from the room and take out anything that might encourage the squirrel to stay (AKA snacks). Close all the doors that lead from the room to other areas of the house, but open all of the windows to the outdoors. They’ll likely try to get out on their own, especially if you make some noise on the other side of the door.
What Not to Do
By using a few other tactics, squirrels can be removed from homes without resorting to deadly poisons. Rat poisons are especially harmful; they often won’t kill larger animals like squirrels but will cause serious damage and suffering to the creature. Squirrels can also track the poison outdoors, which can then come into contact with pets or young children.
Try to Trap the Squirrels Yourself
Approaching a squirrel puts you in jeopardy. Some people might try to throw a blanket over the squirrel or trap it in a box, but the animal might become aggressive and attack you, bringing you into contact with bacteria and disease – not to mention their claws. Trying to trap the squirrel in this way might also cause unintentional injury to the animal.
Call an Exterminator Immediately
Many exterminators will come and set kill traps. Before resorting to this, try some of the easier, more humane options that can safely remove the squirrel from its indoor hiding place.