Toronto’s squirrels have become carnivorous

On a trip to the Rogers Centre for a Blue Jays game last summer, Catia Brito caught sight of a large grey squirrel eating on a patch of green grass below the CN Tower. A native of Aracaju, Sergipe in Brazil now in Toronto to study and work, Brito had seen squirrels before. However, this particular obese squirrel caught her eye: it was eating meat off a tossed-away chicken wing.

“It was shocking,” says Brito. A veterinarian by profession, she knew something was amiss. “Aren’t squirrels vegetarians? Them eating chicken seems wrong.”

While Brito noted the squirrel was female and, judging by its girth, possibly pregnant, the sight of a squirrel eating flesh was reminiscent of other alarming squirrel sightings Torontonians have observed. Squirrels of many sizes and colours have forever been part of the Toronto landscape, but only recently has concern about their large numbers and evolving behavior begun to take hold.

Media reports dubbing Toronto the “raccoon capital of Canada” have focused Toronto’s wildlife concerns to these black-masked mainstays. There have been numerous complaints of raccoons ruining property and growing in population. Moreover, studies from Laurentian University have shown the city’s raccoons to have severe health problems, including diabetes and obesity. While they are often feared, interest in their health is now in the public mind.

But these concerns have renewed focus on Toronto’s squirrel population as well. Residents are familiar with the various types inhabiting the city, including Eastern grey, black, red, and even the occasional white squirrel in the downtown core. Their activities are part of the day-to-day life of Toronto: they chase, climb, chatter, and grow to larger sizes than their rural counterparts. Unlike raccoons, they are seen as fit, healthy, and not affecting people in the city in a negative way.

“We’ve seen an increase in the red squirrel moving into the downtown area in large numbers,” says Paul Oliver of the Urban Nature Store in Etobicoke. “What’s more, there is now a co-mingling of the red and black squirrels, creating almost a new species right within the city itself. Overall, the red squirrels are more adaptive to the city landscapes, have more non-traditional diets, and are more aggressive.”

Yet urban squirrels often face problems living among people and human-made structures. They are exposed to the city’s garbage and foodstuffs. City activity threatens their lives, and humans threaten their habitat. Although the squirrels look athletic and healthy, some fear for Toronto city squirrels’ future and overall wellbeing.

According to McGill University’s Urban Nature Information Service, urban squirrels make themselves at home in cities by nesting in trees, and can live up to two decades in captivity, but seldom live more than a year in the wild. While they are known to eat mostly fruit and nuts, they are sometimes found to eat meat, something that’s becoming increasing commonplace with urban animals.

“This isn’t surprising,” Oliver says. “All the urban animals you’re seeing, from birds to squirrels to raccoons, are eating what’s available to them and adopting unconventional diets. Like the red and black squirrel mating, it’s something new but not overly worrisome.”

City dwellers often worry about squirrels interfering with their property and creating messes in their wake. Their diet and large teeth make them perfect weapons against any wood-based structures they find appealing, often gnawing heavily at home furnishings, siding, or window areas. Some fear of urban squirrels is justified, as the animals can carry the ‘squirrel flea’ or Orchopeas howardi. These fleas carry large numbers of bacteria that can infect roaming domestic animals, and even humans who come across an empty squirrel nest. Getting rid of these fleas requires immediate professional treatment.
Squirrels themselves are also susceptible to injury when coming into contact with humans.

“Home owners need to keep in mind a basic fundamental,” says Nathalie Karvonen, executive director at Toronto Wildlife Centre. “If you don’t maintain your house, squirrels will harm it and, in turn, harm themselves. Our rescue team has to often deal with injured squirrels caught in eaves troughs and dangling from roofs.”

Despite the number of squirrels in the city, they aren’t heavily reported to city government bodies as a nuisance.

“Only 13 reports of infestation and 28 secondary complaints related to squirrels were reported in 2018,” says City of Toronto communications advisor Angela Santos. “Unlike raccoons, squirrels aren’t seen as a major ‘pest,’ or huge agitators of garbage bins or homes.”

“You also have to consider how Torontonians relate to squirrels,” adds Oliver. “Some people still like to feed them; others like to keep them away from their bird feeders. Others have a more negative image of them and want to deal with them in ‘other’ ways…”

Whatever the positive statistics on squirrels in Toronto, some figures are not so comforting. As Santos further notes, over 3,000 dead squirrels were reported and almost 800 were reported injured. Squirrels may be in abundance within the city and its green spaces, but their safety is infringed by day-to-day traffic and new construction. Their change of diet from all-natural food to human-processed throwaways may affect their health and, as with raccoons, have negative ramifications for future squirrel populations. For some, this means adjusting how humans can deal with squirrels, as Paul Oliver concludes:
“We’re trying to get residents to control squirrel damage rather than the squirrels themselves. If you have a tree that you want to protect, don’t try and harm the squirrel. It’s easier to just put a barrier around the tree and leave the animals alone.”
All in all, without enough hard research it’s perhaps too early to know exactly how much the various squirrel populations in Toronto will change with time. They are doubtless an integral part of the city’s wildlife and new, increased interest in them will likely lead to more information about their existence within their habitat in the midst of the cityscape itself.

photo courtesy of Adobe Stock


This article was originally published in Spacing #50 (Spring 2019)

27 comments

  1. Symptom of 2020: Initially misread headline as, “Toronto’s squirrels have coronavirus”.

  2. It was a thrill to finally read a mostly positive article about my favourite “pets:” squirrels. While dog walkers swarm the parks with their fidos, the squirrel has to run for its life every few minutes and never gets to relax and enjoy a nut in peace.
    I have been looking after squirrels in my local park for thirty years. When construction took over and 22 trees were cut down for the “new design “, about thirty mature very healthy large adults were either poisoned or killed by trees falling on them. I watched as a falling tree broke the back of a large male who dragged himself away paralyzed from the waist down. Heartbreaking. The spring babies had just been born and were nursing when their mothers were all killed. A few survived and this is their third summer. If you want to know more let me know. The next chapter is very exciting.

  3. Hi Janet,
    It must have been a horror to watch such a catastrophe. There is no doubt about their resilience as I have the pleasure to watch them throughout the year since I have a bird feeder in the back yard. In fact, I did foster a baby squirrel a few springs earlier that was in need of shelter for a couple months. At any rate, I am curious as to what happened to your kinspets.

  4. Unfortunately, I saw a squirrel eating a hatchling a month ago. It was a traumatic experience and still haunts me up to this day.

  5. Roughly 8 years ago. I saved the life of a local squirrel that came in contact with the hydro pole outside my building. After that day I noticed whenever that squirrel saw me, he/she/it/other would approach, I guess to say TY for savings their life. Never paid much attn to them before then. Now I believe it my destiny to help the local squirrel population. I know all the locals and have names for them. Based on their appearance, territories and behaviors. Squirrels have always been carnivorous. They will eat mice, eggs and some such, as the red squirrels will eat their babies and that of their territorial foes. Its sad that hunting them is legal here in Ontario. Squirrels in general are natures best friend. They plant forests, and have a negative carbon output. I believe there should have vet-care for squirrels, and I always slow down driving in residential hoods where squirrels are active and present.

  6. Squirrels are omnivores. They eat all manner of small insects and will even eat eggs, small animals and even snakes. You should probably do some research before writing sensational stories like this…

  7. Red squirrels will eat birds eggs and hatchlings, so seems not that weird. Sure grey’s do the same thing.

  8. Nothing new here I’ve seen squirrels eat hot dogs years ago

  9. Hello Janet,

    I’m curious to know the next chapter!

  10. “Aren’t squirrels vegetarians?” you mean herbivores? Doesn’t exactly sound like you’re sourcing a credible person when you call squirrels” vegetarian”… Oh yeah this squirrel here his name is Bob and he’s choosing not to eat meat.. He’s also on a gluten free diet…. Seriously.. Terrible.

  11. They are a pest in my garden. They’ve been chewing off all my zucchini flowers and subsequently damaged the plant such that its not able to grow anymore. They’d also chew off young cucumbers and would constantly ravage my cherry tomatoes! I say they, but I suspect it’s all the doings of only one squirrel! Grrr.. I would have invest in cages for the next season.

  12. Wow – Regarding Janet Mclelland ‘s post! That is awful. I feed squirrels at my neighbourhood park too and I don’t know how I would handle them “re-designing” my park in such a thoughtless manner.

  13. I Live in Northern Ontario and guided hunts of Black bear .now unlike down in the GTA we have flying squirrels and mostly 99?%RED SQUIRELS that I’ve seen them eating the bear bait made up of pork or beef scraps not to mention sweets..For sure squirrels are carnivorous..I hope I haven’t offended anyone as I no most ppl that hunt have a huge respect of nature overall.Thanks Ken K ..Howling Wolf Taxidermy …

  14. I live three and a half hours north of Toronto in the country. I have my whole life and have seen red squirels eat meat and have witness them be canabolistic at times. Squirrels behaving in this manner is nothing new. At least not to the last 20 years that I have witnessed.

  15. Squirrels as pets is as ridiculous as raccoons as pets. These are wild animals and should be treated as such for their own sake. The uncontrolled proliferation of squirrels will lead to their destruction as they will be seen as vermin to be eliminated from urban areas. Raccoons have become a plague in Toronto. Let’s not add squirrels to the list by over protecting them in the name of mindless naturalism.

  16. Squirrels have also been known to be cannibalistic when food sources are scarce. I was horrified when I found out, but unfortunately it’s also part of what makes them squirrels.

  17. A lot of people are commenting “yeah, their omnivores”. In Toronto, red squirrels are new to the area and have brought their meat eating habits with them. Black and grey squirrels have rarely displayed carnivorous tendencies until the last decade or two.

    So don’t get your bonnets in a bind if you’ve seen meat-eating squirrels where you live or hunt; this is a relatively new phenomenon locally.

  18. Squirrels are to me rats with good P.R. (Public Relations) I have had a black one eat through a window screen to get at a piece of peanut butter toast on the kitchen counter. A red squirrel caught eating a forgotten bbq ‘d chicken thigh on a cold grill.

  19. Well this is about chipmunks….weve had 5 summers at our cottage..and for the first time ever my husband and I saw a chipmunk fill up his cheeks with our DOG FOOD!! and run away with it.couldnt believe our eyes..And our dog Noodles is a very hungary PUG🤣😂😅 We are 4 hours from any city..

  20. I’ve lived in Barrie for 30+ years, and have an abundance of Black, Grey, Red, and yes, I’ve seen some mutant hybrids as well( they look like Neanderthal squirrels, nut brown and shaggy). I tried for years to keep them out of my bird feeders, inadvertently I’ve forced their evolution!
    They now hunt in packs with spears, have mastered fire, and ride rabbits to hunt. I feed them to keep them away from the bird feeders in the morning, so they worship me as their white robed God.
    Kinda feels good…

  21. When I lived in London ON in the 90s, there were some parks where humans could no longer sit on a bench and eat lunch, because the squirrels had been “kindly” fed so often they would swarm humans eating, expecting the food to be given to them.

    I had to stop letting my cat out because three squirrels ganged up and attacked her. I had to run out to the back yard to chase them off and bring her inside.

    If you really care about squirrels and other urban wildlife, you won’t feed them by hand, won’t encourage them to get near our into human homes, won’t reward them demanding food (even if they’re being “cute” admit it). They’re smaller than raccoons, but they’re big enough to bite and scratch a human, and they are capable of learning to use the strength of binders to get what they want.

  22. Forgetful Squirrels are responsible for planting a large part of our forests both deciduous and coniferous. They are magnificent outside but can wreak havoc in a home even chewing on wires that can potentially cause fires and giving Raccoon a hole to make bigger and move in. Not maintaining your eavestroughs is the culprit. A full eavestrough or rain gutter overflows with water. This overflow gets sucked into the wood fascia and roof sheeting and causes rot. Squirrels use the eavestroughs for there super highways. It doesn’t take long before squirrel census a slight warm draft coming from partially rotted wood on your house. Once they sense this draft start to dig through to get to that warm cozy space and on the other side. The moral of the story is keep your eavestroughs clean.
    Thank You
    Charlie Patrick
    Animal Control Officer
    Belleville/Quinte West/Mohawk Territory
    Patrick Enterprises Canada Animal Control

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