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Thursday, August 6, 2015
Maybe in homage to settlements of the Old West — or maybe because I’m a little strange — some time ago, I had put a cow skull on my basement door.

This used to be a cow skull. Four years later, it's less than half a cow skull
thanks to grey squirrels. (BOB CONFER / CONTRIBUTOR)
Almost four years later, more than half the skull is gone.

It wasn’t destroyed by the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. It wasn’t eaten by carrion beetles. It wasn’t worn away by sidewalk salt.

Instead, it was consumed by grey squirrels.

Most people think of squirrels as cute, docile little animals that eat nothing but seeds and nuts. That stereotype can quickly change when they see the bug-eyed creatures gnawing away on bone. There’s something strange, something morbid, about it.

Adding to that sight is the unforgettable sound. I’m sure you’ve heard squirrels chewing on walnut shells in the fall. That sound, loud in itself, is nothing like tooth on bone, especially on a hollow, resonant skull. That fingernails-on-chalkboard sound can be heard from almost one hundred feet away.

They aren’t doing it for kicks. They are doing it for survival. There is twofold benefit to consuming skulls.

First off, squirrels must do this to stave off metabolic bone disease. MBD is a common ailment for squirrels in captivity and squirrels that live in yards away from forests. What happens is they consume bird seed, walnuts, butternuts, hickory and even corn from adjacent farm fields – foods high in phosphorous and low in calcium. That creates a chemical imbalance whereby the squirrel is overcome with lethargy, seizures and fractured bones.

In the past 20 years I’ve seen a half dozen squirrels suffering from strange seizures, but none since the cow skull was made available for them. They get the calcium they need from eating the skull, so the sickness that previously affected squirrels in my yard is but a thing of the past.

Bone disease doesn’t normally happen to forest-dwelling squirrels as they get calcium from carcasses and bones found throughout the forest (things you normally don’t have laying on your lawn). It happens a lot to pet squirrels, which is why experienced squirrel owners feed their pets bones that would normally be given to dogs.

Another reason that squirrels chew on bone is to keep their teeth in check. I’m sure you’ve heard that if beavers don’t keep gnawing wood, their teeth will grow too long, piercing their lower lips or extending beyond their lower jaw, making it impossible to eat, thus starving from their lack of good self dental care.

The same holds true for squirrels. This is called malocclusion and, as with the beaver, it could cause the slow death of a squirrel. By gnawing on bone material, they can keep their teeth short and useful. This is why you might also see them chewing on the stone foundation of your home.

As you can see, having access to bones is crucial for the health, even life, of squirrels. So, if you have a family of them in your yard and you appreciate their cuteness, companionship and silly antics, do them a big favor and put some bones out for them. You don’t have to go overboard like I did with an animal skull, but if you can get access to some leg bones or soup bones it would go a long ways in ensuring their well-being.    

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where his cow skull has probably scared away many a visitor. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at bobconfer@juno.com.



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