Driving around Dawson and Lumpkin counties recently, I couldn't help but notice the unusual amount of dead squirrels lying all over the road. It seems like I can't drive a mile without seeing a "road kill" squirrel or having one dart into my path, pause, jump and shoot off in another direction. We have received many calls at the extension office from folks who have lived here their entire lives and can't remember seeing anything like this before.
Anglers have even reported seeing squirrels swimming in local lakes. So what exactly is making the squirrels so crazy?
The Wildlife Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources believes they might have a solution. Adam Hammond, a wildlife biologist for the Georgia DNR, points to large numbers of young squirrels resulting from high food availability in 2012.
Most of the squirrels we see in our area are gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis). They are most numerous in hardwood forests with high oak and hickory tree populations. Nuts from oaks and hickories provide the most nutritious forage for squirrels. Yearly nut availability is often referred to as "mast."
Gray squirrels are also known to feed on tree flowers, dogwood and blackgum fruit, grasses and weeds.
There are two main breeding seasons for gray squirrels in Georgia, one in late winter and another occurring in late summer. Females will only raise two broods in a year if food supply is adequate. Young squirrels are weaned by the mother for about eight to 10 weeks.
Understanding the feeding and breeding habits of the gray squirrel can help us better understand the unusual behavior patterns we are now witnessing. Biologists at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources have noted that last year's mast was high. Because of this, more squirrels were able to survive through the winter. Lower winter mortality rates lead to higher successful breeding rates. So, we are witnessing higher populations of young squirrels as a result of the "bumper crop" of acorns from 2012.
Unfortunately, this year's weather has not been conducive with sustaining the high squirrel populations. The excess rainfall we experienced this summer caused many of the forming acorns to rot and fall before development. The constant moisture surrounding tree roots also stressed them to the point of ceasing nut production this year.
There is normally a "fall shuffle," when male squirrels will venture out to find new territories that they can settle in. However, this year there are large numbers of males and females racing to find new territory before the cold winter sets in.
Unfortunately for the squirrels, there is limited territory and an even more limited food supply. This is just another part of the cyclical process nature has in controlling wild populations.
Clark MacAllister is the Dawson County extension agent. For more information, call (706)265-2442.