Three newborn squirrel squatters land on their feet
Photo courtesy of Scott Graupner
Reddington, Verde, and Blue Sky hit the lottery around 11 am on March 31.
Scott Graupner had just discovered their mom's squirrel nest in the bathroom ceiling of a customer's Chilmark home. Mr. Graupner has a remodeling and carpentry business on the Island.
Who you gonna call when you've got squirrels in your belfry? Fortunately for the three hairless, four-inch-long, two-week-old litter mates, the homeowner called Mr. Graupner.
"There was a softball-sized hole in the sheet rock ceiling in the bathroom near an outside louver that the mother squirrel used to get in the house, " Mr. Graupner said. "Evidently she didn't like being in the bathroom so she had filled the hole with leaves and climbed down the pipes to get into the main house."
Mom obviously had a Martha Stewart gene or two, using bits of couch upholstery to brighten the color of the nest she built above the bathroom ceiling. We'll never know because she skedaddled when Mr. Graupner's repair work began.
"I found the nest with the babies in it and set it on the back deck hoping the mother would retrieve them. No luck. So I set up a couple of Have-a-Heart traps near the nest and by the louver where she entered the house," he said.
"It was one of those cold, rainy March days. I knew they wouldn't last long," said Mr. Graupner, an experienced woodsman and hunter. So he took them home, bedded them on a sweatshirt over a heating pad and took a crash course on the care and feeding of infant squirrels.
"My sisters are active in animal rehabilitation, and I checked with Island vets for tips," he said. Several hours later, the six-foot, rangy carpenter was feeding puppy replacement milk through tiny nipples attached to tiny syringes to three tiny squirrels. Six times a day. Each.
As the grey squirrels have grown, the syringes and nipples and milk supply are larger but the schedule is the same. Six feedings a day.
"I don't have kids, but these guys have given me a look at what a two o'clock feeding is like," he said to a visitor to his house on Saturday, May 14.
The business of saving squirrels, or any wild animal, is a complicated process that requires the saving agent to nurture the animals but avoid attachment, as Mr. Graupner explained.
"They are not pets, they're wild animals, and they'll be released to nature in about a month, so we have to create an environment like the one they'll be living in," he explained.
To that end, Mr. Graupner and his partner, Donna Davey, have spent hours on the Internet researching the topic. They even found a squirrel expert in Georgia who has coached them.
Mr. Graupner has made a creative and thoughtful nest environment, which includes a hollowed out tree branch he found in the woods and then installed in a five-by-five-foot cage he built for the beasts.
"They have good instincts. They freeze when a crow caws or a dog barks, and move to shelter," he said (proudly), noting that when he introduced a small house into the top of the den a few weeks ago, "They knew exactly what to do. Within a half-hour, they had carried leaves from the bottom of the cage into the house and moved in. That's their home."
But if the squirrels knew what they were doing, it was more difficult for their tenders.
"We had to name them to identify them," Ms. Davey said. So each squirrel has a small daub of non-toxic paint on its tail. Reddington has red, Verde has green, and Blue Sky has a blue dot. Reddington and Blue Sky are male, Verde is female.
"We had to able to tell them apart. When they feed six times a day and squirm around, it's hard to tell who has eaten and who hasn't," she said. The paint will be allowed to fade before they return to nature, she said.
Baby squirrels, it turns out, are just like other babies. Lots of milk and lots of calcium. Calcium is key for bone development.
"I put a piece of deer antler in the cage, and they chew on it constantly, "Mr. Graupner said.
Over the past month, the growing squirrels have been introduced to calcium-rich solid foods — small seeds and nuts, vegetables and fruit, including apples, broccoli, peeled grapes and avocado.
"They love avocado. Sit up and hold it in their paws. Eat it like we eat corn," he said.
The babies are approaching the weaning stage, but are not yet ready for the big test. "The conventional wisdom is that they are ready to go when they can crack a walnut themselves," he says, noting that the trio are about half their fully adult size.
Baby squirrels have to grow up quickly.
"Female squirrels typically have two litters a year,so they get on their own fairly quickly," Mr. Graupner said. He figures that when released in late spring, the kits will have four to five months of agreeable weather and plentiful food sources to help them reach adulthood.
Setting them free is a multi-step process.
"We'll move the entire cage into the yard for a day. Then open the cage for a day or two as they explore and return to their predator-safe house. Then we'll put the house in a tree, and they can use it or make their own nest.".
Mr. Graupner understands that letting go is sometimes hard to do. Fortunately, his partner, Ms. Davey, is a licensed social worker.
"Yeah, could be some empty nest syndrome here. Maybe my skills will get some work," she laughed.