Inside the squirrel nursery at City Wildlife, a blue hammock bulges with sleepy, snuggling baby squirrels. One cage over, two bright-eyed babies squabble over a nut. Another youngster, this one in the hands of wildlife biologist Abigail Hehmeyer, grasps a plastic syringe with its tiny claws and guzzles formula.
Across the hall, staff and volunteers at the wildlife rehabilitation center in Washington, D.C., care for other wild animals. There’s a songbird with a broken leg, a cardinal found stuck in a glue trap and orphaned baby bunnies.
City Wildlife has more than 60 baby squirrels — from hairless infants to juveniles with bushy tails and big brown eyes. Some of the baby squirrels are orphans; others need medical care after suffering injuries from falls or bites by dogs or cats.
Hehmeyer predicted that the nursery might soon have 100 baby squirrels. “That’s typical for this time of year,” she said during a visit last month.
Born in spring and late summer, squirrels are an important part of our shared urban ecosystem. Wildlife conservationist and squirrel expert John Koprowski says the animals help plant trees by scattering and burying tree seeds. This is important for the growth and spread of forests.
“Squirrels are small animals with a big role,” Koprowski said.
Seven days a week, volunteers and staff arrive at City Wildlife as early as 6 a.m. to start long days of feeding, cleaning cages and more feeding.
“In the wild, squirrels are up from dawn to dusk, so we try to mimic that schedule here,” Hehmeyer said.
Some babies eat six times a day.
Caregivers also create opportunities for the squirrels to practice skills necessary for survival in the wild, such as making nests, foraging for nuts and figuring out how to crack those nuts and cache (or store) them.
The humans at City Wildlife limit their interaction with the babies so they maintain a fear of people — one of the requirements for release. After a couple of weeks in an outdoor enclosure at Second Chance Wildlife Center in Gaithersburg, young squirrels return to the city for release in wooded areas.
“People ask if it’s hard to see the baby squirrels go when they’re released,” said Hehmeyer, who recently moved to the World Wildlife Federation. “But I think it’s joyful to see them go through the process and know that we helped.”
At 6 or 7 weeks old, when they sport bushy tails and sit up straight to eat, the babies in the squirrel nursery at City Wildlife are hungry for acorns. A single squirrel can eat three a day. For squirrels, acorns are an important source of protein.
City Wildlife appreciates donations of found nuts. “Acorns are very expensive to buy, and the best ones for young squirrels are ones they will find in their natural home,” said wildlife biologist Abigail Hehmeyer. “Food recognition is a big deal. We want these squirrels to be able to look at an acorn and say, ‘I’m supposed to eat this.’ ”
Kids and families can collect acorns, hickory nuts and walnuts and deliver them to City Wildlife. The organization also seeks donations of baby blankets, newspaper and cardboard paper towel rolls (for hiding nuts and encouraging baby squirrels to forage). For more information and a wish list of things the organization needs, you and a parent can visit www.citywildlife.org.