Our cottage was inundated with red squirrels this year. So far, I have live-trapped 11 of them and transported them about seven kilometres away. Is this far enough so that they won’t come back? Or am I catching the same squirrels?
—Alfie Peneycad, Shadow Lake, Ont.
It’s possible. Many animals have a homing instinct, says Kamal Khidas, the curator of vertebrate collections at the Canadian Museum of Nature. We know this because of all those heartwarming news stories about pets that get lost on vacation, and then—it’s a miracle!—find their way back to their owners many months later. But also because of research on the behaviour of translocated wild animals: deer, moose, bears, wolves (plus sea turtles and pythons). “In general, the larger the species, the farther the distance from which they can return,” says Khidas.
But seven kilometres? That’s a long haul. If you relocate a squirrel today, you’re not going to see the same one tomorrow. It’s more likely that a new one has moved into the area, says Stan Boutin, a professor in biological sciences at the University of Alberta. “As soon as one disappears, another squirrel is Johnny-on-the-spot, ready to take over.”
Squirrels have small territories—about the size of a typical backyard in the city, says Boutin. So moving one that far away is taking it “well outside of its normal home range.” And probably dropping it directly into some other squirrel’s home range. “Squirrels are very territorial,” says Boutin. “If you put another individual into their territory, the newcomer is going to get his butt kicked.” A relocated squirrel could be bounced from territory to territory, attacked and killed, or it may starve to death. “It’s very tough on them,” says Boutin.
Live-trapping and relocating any nuisance wildlife can go wrong for other reasons: you could accidentally separate a mother from her babies or contribute to the spread of disease if you move a sick animal. (Also, FYI: in some provinces, relocating wild animals more than one kilometre away from where you trap them is against the law.)
You’re better off squirrel proofing. It’s labour intensive and boring, but it’s easier on the conscience.