Nature Notes: The Squirrel in Winter

The majority of our gray squirrels tough it out during the cold winter months in what are called “dreys.”
Gray squirrels nest in bundle-like stick-and-leaf dreys, built high in the trees. During a recent drive, hundreds of dreys were observed along the roadsides from Noyac to Amagansett. Dell Cullum

The leaves, except the very lowest, are off the local hardwood trees, most of which are oaks, with fewer hickories, beech, sassafras, and maples. As one drives along the back roads and looks up to either side, the globular bundles of dried leaves and twigs stand out. They’re mostly the size of soccer balls — we would have a hard time trying to fit inside — but they are the perfect size for gray squirrels, our most common mammal larger than a rat.

Squirrels, especially flying squirrels, like holes with cavities in the boles of trees, but these are hard to come by here and most are taken by the likes of woodpeckers, bluebirds, crested flycatchers, owls, and even white-footed mice. So the majority of our gray squirrels tough it out during the cold winter months in what are called “dreys.” Almost no one who isn’t a squirrel zoologist or mammalogist uses the term drey, but it can be handy when writing about squirrels.

Because the acorn crop was unusually bad in 2017, while other nut-bearing trees didn’t make out so well either, one might surmise that the number of dreys would be down compared to the very good nut year of 2016. Also, gray squirrels crossing roads looking for nuts have become the most common roadkill, outnumbering cottontails, raccoons, and opossums in total.

But a drey can be the perfect place to get the population going again. The female spends most of her winter months preparing for the young that will issue in mid-spring. In some cases a drey is used again and again, with the drey keeper taking time out from her busy day to keep it tight and nearly rainproof. 

I’ve been counting the dreys of Southampton and East Hampton lately as I drive from place to place on business, the way I count deer, birds, roadkills, and other things of natural history interest. On Monday I cruised the back roads of East Hampton for two and one-half hours looking for dreys. One can windshield-survey about 50 feet in on either side of the road, so you miss a lot of the deeper-in ones. My hypothesis was that there should be fewer this year than in previous years because of the record low acorn crop. I started on Route 114 between Sag Harbor and East Hampton, then I checked out several back roads all the way to Old Stone Highway in Amagansett. 

Several roads in northwestern East Hampton have as many conifers, almost all pines, as hardwoods, and you don’t find many dreys in such areas as Swamp Road or Old Northwest Road. The southern flying squirrel, which has been building its numbers and spreading its distribution on the South Fork since the late 1990s, prefers conifers for nest building and very much prefers cavities to leaf nests, but it does make them.

Monday was mild and calm, so it was a good day to check out the diseased pines that had been cut down and were still lying out in plain sight. I was quite surprised at the extent of them; they started on the east side of Route 114 and appeared on and off all the way over to the west side of Three Mile Harbor. By the looks of things, the southern pine beetle is far from finished.

I wondered whether the busiest roads I traveled, such as Route 114, would have as many nests per mile as the less traveled roads, and would dreys be more common around houses than in sparsely populated areas where there is much less feeding of winter birds? 

The former guess seemed to hold water, as I couldn’t see one drey on either side of 114 throughout its length. Last week I traveled the length of Sagg Road in eastern Southampton Town. It runs from Sag Harbor all the way south to the ocean and has many fewer houses per mile than most of the other roads here and not nearly the traffic that, say, Noyac Road, the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike, or Route 114 has. From Montauk Highway to the end of Sagg Road in Sag Harbor, there were at least 30 dreys to be seen on either side of the road, with the west side outnumbering the east side.

On Monday the road with the most dreys, 29 per mile, was Neck Path in Springs, which runs from its junction with the north end of Accabonac Highway and Old Stone Highway east for a mile to meet the eastern part of Old Stone Highway. It revealed 36 dreys from one end to the other, from 20 to 40 feet high in trees on both sides of the road. It has very few houses and relatively little traffic. Three Mile Harbor Road, from its intersection with Abraham’s Path to where it becomes Hog Creek Road at its northern terminus and running east to Springs-Fireplace Road, had 8.66 dreys per mile, for a total of 39, followed by Springs-Fireplace Road, at 6.9 dreys per mile.

In all, 36.5 miles of East Hampton roads produced 232 dreys, or 6.5 dreys per mile. If one had X-ray eyes and could see hundreds of feet into the forests on both sides of the road, the number would be several times higher. The very busy Noyac Road, which runs about 10 miles from North Sea to Sag Harbor, accounted for only eight nests on Monday morning, suggesting that in spite of the fact that it is mostly bordered on either side by oaks and other hardwoods, its heavy use is a deterrent. 

On the same morning, but earlier, Route 24, which connects Hampton Bays with Riverhead and runs for miles, had only one or two dreys. It may be that its low squirrel population has to do with the fact that the bordering hardwoods are not as numerous as the bordering pitch pines.

So it would seem that the roads well traveled and the roads ensconced in evergreens had fewer squirrels than the other kinds.


Larry Penny can be reached via email at