Squirrels need plenty of sleep to keep their energy up for scampering and foraging for nuts all day. However, you’ve probably never seen a squirrel sleeping in the wild.
Despite their playful, sometimes aggressive, nature, squirrels are prey animals that are vulnerable to attacks by larger animals, which is why they only sleep when they are well-protected. You may not have observed squirrels sleeping with your own eyes, but scientists have studied these creatures and uncovered their unique sleeping habits.
Squirrels have their regular sleep patterns as well as seasonal patterns of hibernation and estivation. These animals need plenty of rest to keep their energy levels up.
Crepuscular Sleeping Habits
To understand how squirrels sleep, you need to understand how their sleeping schedules function. Squirrels are crepuscular, which means that they are mostly active during dawn and dusk. Other small woodland animals, such as rabbits, have the same schedule.
There are a few reasons why a crepuscular schedule works for squirrels. The light during dawn and dusk is enough to allow them to see food for foraging, but still dark enough to offer some cover from predators. Weather conditions are also best and temperatures are neither extremely hot nor cold.
Squirrels get most of their sleep at night, when it is too dark for them to forage. Some squirrels will also sleep through the hottest part of the day. However, other squirrels, particularly tree squirrels, remain active throughout the day. On average, squirrels sleep about 15 hours in a 24-hour period.
The Most Comfortable Sleeping Positions (According to a Squirrel)
When they go to sleep, squirrels like to be comfortable and cozy (just like humans do). They will also choose a location that is well-protected and provides cover from predators that could take advantage of a squirrel’s vulnerability while asleep.
When squirrels find their sleeping place, they like to huddle together for warmth and will usually curl up in a little ball. Squirrels often use their tails to provide shelter from rain or wind.
Squirrels make their own sleeping place or find natural hollows or burrows carved out by other animals. Understanding where squirrels sleep can also help us understand how they sleep.
A squirrel nest is called a dray. Squirrels make their own drays with twigs and leaves, and add a soft lining made out of moss, fur, and leaves. Sometimes, squirrels will make their drays in a house if they can find a way inside, but usually they make these nests in the forks of tall trees.
Drays have built-up sides to provide protection from wind, cold, and rain. During warmer months, squirrels will sleep in their nests, rest during the day, and even raise their babies. However, drays do not offer enough protection in winter so many squirrels go elsewhere for shelter.
Tree squirrels are the species that usually build drays. Flying squirrels build similar constructions called dens.
Burrows and Dens
When the weather gets colder, squirrels need somewhere warmer to sleep so that they can maintain their body temperature. Then, squirrels may seek out a hollowed tree or even a burrow carved out by a woodpecker.
Ground squirrels sleep in burrows year-round. Ground squirrel burrows are close to the ground or even underground.
Hibernation and Estivation
Besides regular sleeping patterns that squirrels engage in every day, some squirrels go into a deep sleep called hibernation or estivation to help them get through extreme seasons.
Most tree squirrels, that also tend to live in temperate climates, do not hibernate. Instead, they are active throughout the year. Tree squirrels are leaner than ground squirrels and are not able to store extra fat that would allow them to survive for days or even weeks without eating. Instead, they have to store food throughout the summer and return to it in the winter.
However, ground squirrels can go into dormant states to protect their bodies from extreme weather.
Hibernation is a type of deep sleep that many animals engage in to survive the winter. Ground squirrels can hibernate for as long as five months.
During hibernation, ground squirrels tuck themselves away into their burrows. They will slow down the body’s natural processes, such as breathing and metabolism, to use minimal energy. Ground squirrels also lower their body temperature to only be a few degrees warmer than the outdoor temperature so that heating is less work.
However, ground squirrels do not hibernate continuously for five months. Every week, they wake up for a few hours to forage for food and add to the fat reserves they built up during the fall.
Estivation is hibernation’s less-common warm weather equivalent. Ground squirrels that live in extremely hot climates such as deserts will hideaway during the summer instead of the cooler months.
Summer in the desert can be fatal, but underground burrows are usually many degrees cooler than the surface. That is why desert ground squirrels will go dormant, or estivate, for as long as seven months if they need to.
How Do Baby Squirrels Sleep?
All of the above only applies to adult squirrels. Baby squirrels have different needs as they grow, so their sleeping habits will look different.
Baby tree squirrels spend the entire first six weeks of their lives in their nest or dray. They spend their whole time sleeping or eating. Squirrels only open their eyes after six weeks, which is when they can start exploring their surroundings.
Young squirrels will continue sleeping with the whole family until they are fully grown (for tree squirrels, this happens after 10 months. Flying squirrels take 18 months to fully mature). Then, they will go out and build their own nests.
Coziness is very important for a squirrel’s sleeping habits. Most squirrels spend their nights and part of the day curled up in their nest or burrow. During the winter, some tree squirrels move to hollows or burrows for warmth.
Besides daily sleep, ground squirrels go into a deep sleep, which is called hibernation or estivation, during extreme weather.