Gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) live in forest woodlands made up predominately of hardwood trees. Highly adaptable, they also thrive in conifer dominate forests. Active year-round, the squirrels reside within a self-constructed nest. Within the nest's safety they seek refuge from inclement weather and raise their young. On rare occasions the squirrels will also use cavities or hollowed-out parts of a large tree to nest within.
The gray squirrel constructs its own waterproof nest, known as a drey, by weaving together twigs, leaves, bark, moss, lichen, grass, feathers and fur. The outer portion of the nest consists of the twigs woven together and the inner sanctuary is softened using the feathers, grass, leaves, fur, lichen and moss. The nests range in size from 10 inches to 18 inches in diameter and resemble a round ball. Some nests may reach 2 feet in diameter. Both males and females assist in nest building.
A gray squirrel will often use leaves to camouflage its nest. The nest is usually built in the top 1/3 of the tree's canopy. The squirrel usually constructs the nest in a fork of branches to offer support to the nest during windy weather. During the fall, after the tree's leaves have fallen, a squirrel's nest is often clearly visible as a large, round ball of leaves. From one to three squirrel families will often reside in one nest when they are not breeding.
Gray squirrels are opportunistic and prefer to nest in cavities that occur in old growth trees. Sycamores, maples, oaks and elms often have cavities that afford the squirrel better protection. Cavities are often utilized as a winter nest location or for a nursery. The squirrel lines the cavity with grass, leaves, fur, feathers or even pieces of paper or material that it might find. Squirrels often have both summer and winter nests. Young squirrels reared in a tree cavity nest have a survival rate that is 2 1/2 times better than those reared in a leaf nest, according to the Clemson University Cooperative Extension.
Squirrels have been known to travel up to 50 miles in search of an ideal habitat, according to the the website extension.org. A hoarder, the gray squirrel will locate an area with abundant food, construct a nest and hoard food in various locations close to the nesting site. The food stashes are buried in the ground for later use. Squirrels have one to two litters of young per year. Once the babies reach a juvenile stage they spend time during the day learning how to construct their own nests.