Cottage Q&A: Why are these squirrels chewing antlers?

A grey squirrel with its paws clasped, eating By Vinnikava Viktoryia/Shutterstock

We have a very old set of antlers screwed to a tree at our cottage. The squirrels have been chewing them for years. Would it be for nourishment, are they sharpening their teeth, or is it just for fun?—Bob Waldock, Lake Vernon, Ont.

Your first guess is probably the most correct, say our experts. By gnawing on the antlers—which are bone—the squirrels are getting some essential elements. 

“Calcium is a likely candidate,” says Stan Boutin, a professor in the department of biological sciences at the University of Alberta. “Squirrels will haul small bones—snowshoe hare femurs, for example—up into trees and cache them. Every so often they visit them, have a chew on them, and then re-cache them. On calm, quiet days you can actually hear them gnawing away,” he says. Kind of creepy, but you do you, squirrels. 

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All rodents—including mice, rats, voles, and rabbits—are known for chewing on almost any material, “short of concrete and metal,” says Gary Ure, the owner of Second Nature Wildlife Management in Gananoque, Ont. They have to. “Their incisors continually grow.” 

Gnawing keeps rodent teeth worn down and sharp. Their mouth is designed to accommodate the behaviour. Instead of canine teeth—which most mammals have—there is an empty space. This allows the rodents to suck in their cheeks and lips and protect their throats from any bits that break loose while they’re gnawing.

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Is chomping on antlers fun? Well, it surely can’t be terrible. Ure has a set of caribou antlers mounted to his woodshed, with the points “chewed down to nubs,” he says. “Whenever the squirrels find that…they’re happy.”

This article was originally published in the October 2020 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

Got a question for Cottage Q&A? Send it to answers@cottagelife.com.

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