Editor's Note: Missouri Department of Conservation naturalists from all over the state answer questions in an Ask the Naturalist segment.
Angela Pierce, a naturalist with the MDC at Cape Girardeau, answered a recent question ... What is that big leaf ball up in the tree? Is it a bird’s nest? Something from insects?
It’s a squirrel’s nest, also known as a drey. This is a perfect time of year to look for dreys because most of the leaves have fallen from the trees and they are clearly visible. They basically look like a large jumble of dead leaves near the tops of trees.
Although they look messy, a great deal of care is taken in their construction. The squirrel first selects the perfect location, usually in a sturdy fork in the canopy. Then, they build a framework of sticks and twigs stuffed with layer upon layer of leaves that is about 1-2 feet in diameter.
When complete, they hollow out an inner cavity that is about 6-8 inches, making for cozy sleeping quarters. Squirrels maintain their nests and make repairs as needed. A well-made drey usually lasts around 6-10 months.
Although dreys do provide decent shelter for everyday life, squirrels prefer hollowed tree cavities for raising young and winter shelters. The first litter of young are born in February or March and the second litter are born July or August. If parasites or droppings become an issue, they will move their kits from the hollow tree into a drey.