Squirrels love to eat nuts and seeds – and because of their curiosity and insatiable appetite, it seems like they will eat everything they can get their little hands on! But if you have a pet squirrel or would like to give the neighbourhood squirrels a treat, you must check if they are not toxic to eat. For example, do squirrels eat conkers?
What are Conkers?
Conkers are the seeds of the horse chestnut tree, which grow in abundance in the United States and Europe.
The green outer shell has sharp spikes, which serves as an effective protective armour. During autumn, the conkers fall from the tree and split open, revealing the shiny brown seed.
Conkers are also called horse chestnuts, and many people confuse them with chestnuts or think that they are same thing.
However, chestnuts have soft, fuzzy spikes—they look like little pompoms, rather than spiky balls. While these spikes are initially green, they eventually turn brown in the autumn.
Are Conkers Safe to Eat?
While chestnuts are a sweet and tasty treat for both squirrels and humans (who doesn’t love roasted chestnuts on an open fire?), conkers are actually poisonous.
Conkers contain aesculin, a poisonous chemical that can cause nausea and stomach upset. While it is not toxic enough to kill humans, it can cause paralysis if ingested in large amounts. Fortunately, most people will not bother to eat that much—conkers are quite bitter, and the first bite is enough to make you stop.
But can squirrels eat conkers? NO. The aesculin also affects their digestive systems, and they instinctively will avoid eating them. You may see them curiously nibbling the shell, but the smell and taste of conkers will prevent even the most curious or hungry squirrel from gulping it down.
Are There Any Animals That Can Eat Conkers?
Conkers are actually toxic to most animals—even to the horses that their trees are named after. If your pet dog eats one, bring him to the vet right away!
Deer and wild boars can sometimes eat conkers, without any side effects or health problems, but they will only do so if they cannot find any other food.
Why Do Squirrels Collect Conkers if They Can’t Eat Them?
If squirrels cannot eat conkers, why do they still like to pick them up when they see them on the ground? It is just part of their hoarding instinct.
Squirrels have a primal instinct to eat as much as they can during the autumn, and then collect nuts, seeds, and other food to store for the winter. They know that once the snow sets in, they will not be able to find anything to eat. The only way to survive is to gather everything they can.
That instinct drives them to pick up conkers and add them to their Winter stash. However, they will not eat it — and by Spring, you will find many dried-up conker seeds scattered in their burrows and hidden “food banks.”
In a way, the squirrel’s compulsion to collect these nuts is one reason why horse chestnut trees are so prolific in hardwood forests. The abandoned nuts — now scattered in different parts of the forest — take root and grow into trees.
What do Squirrels Eat?
While squirrels cannot eat conkers, they can eat almost everything else. These hardy scavengers have evolved to be able to survive whatever they can find in the forest. That includes:
Your vegetable garden is practically a buffet for squirrels. They will any leafy green they can find—lettuce, kale, chard, arugula, spinach. They also will eat any root vegetables and their greens, tomatoes, okra, eggplant, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, leeks… There is no vegetable that a squirrel cannot or will not eat!
Squirrels go nuts over nuts, which are a good source of fat and protein for them. They can eat walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, pistachios, cashews, hickory nuts, pine nuts, macadamia nuts, and even almonds and acorns. They can also eat chestnuts—just make sure they are not horse chestnuts!
One thing that squirrels love to eat is fruit. They love to eat apples, citrus fruits like oranges, mangoes and nectarines, peaches, plums, kiwi, figs, grapes, and more.
Wild squirrels will forage the forests for fungi. This includes lichen (which can grow on the moist bark), as well as any truffles and mushrooms they can find on the ground or growing in fallen logs.
Squirrels are known to steal any eggs that they can find in birds’ nests. They will eat any type of bird egg, from robin eggs to blackbird eggs. While they usually wait until the mother bird has flown away in search for food, larger squirrels have been known to attack the birds or get hatchlings and young chicks. They may even steal eggs from chicken coops.
Squirrels prefer to get their nutrients from fruits, nuts, vegetables, and other plants, but if they cannot find any—and even eggs are in short supply—they will eat insects as an alternative source of protein.
They may eat caterpillars, grasshoppers, crickets, and other small bugs. Bear in mind that it is not part of their regular diet but is used as a last resort when they cannot find food.
Squirrels who live near towns, farms or even in urban areas have also adapted to eat human food. They are scavengers by nature and will not pass up an opportunity to take food scraps from garbage bins or any picnic baskets you left open.
Squirrels will also eat bird food, or “share” the kibble you left for your dog and cat. If you try and tame a squirrel, by regularly leaving out food, it may learn to run up to your porch at certain times of the day or even eat out of your hand.
The Verdict: No to Conkers, Yes to Almost Everything Else
So, for the question, “Do squirrels eat conkers?” the short answer is NO. But the good news is that there is a huge variety of other food that squirrels can eat.
Squirrels can be a real nuisance too and are known to cause lots of damage and destruction to gardens and property. If you have a problem with squirrels, we have an article for you.
Did you Know?
“The Grey squirrel was intentionally introduced to the UK during Victorian Times and is now considered to be vermin!”
“It is illegal to release a squirrel back into the wild if has been caught or injured!”
“Contrary to popular belief, squirrels DO NOT hibernate!”
“Since the introduction of the grey squirrel to the UK, the native red squirrel has become endangered!”
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do squirrels collect conkers?
Squirrels have an innate instinct to gather seeds that have fallen in preparation for the winter months. Although conkers are not good for squirrels, in extreme circumstances they may eat them to prevent starvation.
Do squirrels eat horse chestnuts?
Squirrels have a primal instinct to gather nuts/ seeds, but they do not eat horse chestnuts except in extreme circumstances. Horse chestnuts contain aesculin which causes upset stomachs and in large enough amounts are very dangerous.
What do squirrels eat?
Squirrels will eat a great many things. They are primarily herbivores but are known to prey on bird nests and eat eggs and also a lot of grubs and insects if there is nothing else available. A squirrel’s favourite is acorns but they also love any fruits, veg and fungi.
Hi, I’m Trev and I’ve been growing things since I can remember. When I was younger, I grew up on a farm, so I have always been around plants and animals. After studying horticulture at university, I decided to start my own nursery which I have run now for 25 years. In my spare time, I run this website – which is a resource for people who want to learn more about their gardens.