Raising Red Squirrels

Leah Birmingham

Baby red squirrels sleeping. Photo courtesy SPWC.

[This article ran in the June/July 2014 issue of The SCOOP.]

When you work in the wildlife rehabilitation field, your take-home work projects are a little different from other people. Don't get me wrong there is a pile of administrative type projects, similar to other lines of work. Luckily there are the much more rewarding, sometimes stressful and heartbreaking projects as well. My special project this spring has been raising a litter of orphaned Red Squirrels. Originally there were five female two-day-old Red Squirrels brought into Sandy Pines Wildlife Centre by a concerned family who had accidentally killed their mother while dismantling a dilapidated shed. They did not know why she had remained in the shed during the demo, risking her own life, until they came across her nest. Saddened by their find they starting seeking help and came across Sandy Pines. When they called, Sue Meech, encouraged them to keep the babies warm (a key step in the rescue of orphaned neonates) and come as soon as possible.

Upon their arrival, Sue and I gave each other a knowing look. If these squirrels were going to live, someone was going to lose a lot of sleep to ensure they have the best chance possible of survival. We also both knew that it would require someone with experience, as it is not easy to pull such young and vulnerable infants through the first few weeks of life. So at the end of my shift, I bundled them up in a tiny container, nestled into a soft fleecy blanket and took the necessary supplies home with me. Since they had been found so quickly after their mother's untimely death, they were well hydrated, and in good body condition with very little trauma.

For the first couple of weeks, their progress seemed painfully slow. Feeding them every three hours, day and night makes you eager to see the results. The results I was looking for were things like their ears and eyes opening (they are born furless with their eyes not fully formed and their ears closed) and fur starting to grow on their nose and toes. All the little landmarks that remind you that this state of sleep deprivation will end...eventually.

Each of them is given an identifying mark; at this stage of life when they are hairless we often use nail polish as it seems to stay on for quite a while. When they grow hair, their markings become little hair clippings. Since we generally don't give names to the wildlife in our care, they end up being referred to by their markings, such as left, right, center, bum, nose and so on, depending on how large the litter is we have to get very creative sometimes! They are weighed daily and the amount of milk replacer (a formula specifically designed for orphan squirrels) they get at each feed is adjusted as they grow.

All was going well, which surprised me because when I took them into my care and decided to trade my sleep for their second chance; I had accepted the notion that they may not make it. In fact, my resolve was such that if two out of the five survived I felt that was a success and worth the energy I had put into them. When they were all going strong by the end of two weeks I became even more invested in seeing this project through. By now they were a little stronger, and our interns had started at SPWC. Our interns are quickly trained to the art of late-night/early morning feeding, and the patients requiring overnight feeds become their responsibility. So I could have justifiably passed their care over, but since so many of my sleepless nights had gone into their growth, I was hesitant to pass all that hard work over to anyone else!

Caring for them at work was actually the most challenging. This might seem strange since I work at a wildlife rehabilitation centre but at home, I have few distractions and keeping to their feeding schedule is relatively easy. However at SPWC teaching new staff and interns on top of managing patient care, as well as working towards the new wildlife hospital, are all-consuming tasks, especially when you are getting about five hours of broken sleep every night. Case in point - the day I took a Red-Tailed Hawk with a fractured wing into the local vet hospital for an x-ray. While I was away the squirrels’ little container had shifted from being half on a heating pad, to fully on the heating pad, and on top of a particularly hot spot. By the time I was back and had checked on them, their container (which was plastic) had a hole melted in the bottom and inside their fleecy nest, they were a ball of hot sweaty pinkies. I cooled them off quickly and they seemed to handle the incident well, but that is just how precarious our work is. Hours of effort and in an instant all of them could die.

They survived, but several days later, the smaller two started to go off their feeds, not wanting their milk and started showing signs of an upper respiratory infection. This started during the 1 am feed, and even though I had started antibiotics less than 12 hours later, the smallest succumbed and died. Disappointing, but not surprising. The rest of the litter picked up and from that moment on it has been a series of hitting their benchmarks.

My favourite benchmark of course was when their eyes opened; this is when it’s acceptable to stop the 3am feed, and no longer necessary to stimulate them to urinate and defecate. Yes, that is right, when young mammals are in the nest, their mother ingests their urine and feces to prevent the nest from becoming soiled and attracting predators. So most little animals have evolved so that they do not urinate unless their genital region is stimulated. In the wildlife rehab world, we do this with a moistened piece of toilet paper. If this does not happen their urinary tract may back up and flow into the kidneys causing renal failure. Frankly, this is the real reason they must be tended to every three hours, they can survive without a feed, they may not grow as fast, but as long as it is only one missed feed, they'll live, but if you don't tend to their full bladder - that can be fatal.

Fast forward to tonight, they are about six weeks old, and no longer seem as interested in their milk feeds. Instead, they prefer their rodent chow, nuts, dried fruit, fresh fruit and veggies, along with branches from a variety of local trees. This will be their last night as my take-home project, tomorrow they will stay at Sandy Pines until they are ready for release. Over the next couple of weeks, they will wean from squirrel milk, get acclimatized to living outside, practice climbing, jumping, digging and recognizing natural food sources.

I am sure some people think it is crazy to put all this energy into a bunch of squirrels, but to me, they are a critical part of our ecosystem. Red Squirrels in particular are known as the tree planters of the forest, and by the end of this summer, these four girls will have planted a lot of seeds, some of which will one day become another critical resource in our woodlands.