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?

Squirrel on a Pile of Conkers
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What Are Conkers?

Conkers are the seeds of the horse chestnut tree, which grows in abundance in the United States and Europe. The green outer shell has sharp spikes, which serve 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 the 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.

Do Squirrels Eat Conkers?

No, squirrels cannot eat conkers. Although you may see them hoarding them or even taking the odd bite, the aesculin 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.

Conkers on the Ground
Conkers on the Ground

What is the Difference Between Chestnuts and Horse Chestnuts?

Chestnuts and horse chestnuts are often confused due to their similar appearance, especially when they are in their outer spiky husks. However, they are different species and have distinct characteristics and uses. Here’s a breakdown of the differences between the two:

Botanical Classification

  • Chestnuts: Belong to the genus Castanea and are members of the Fagaceae family. Common species include the American chestnut (Castanea dentata), European chestnut (Castanea sativa), and the Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima).
  • Horse Chestnuts: Belong to the genus Aesculus and are members of the Sapindaceae family. The most common species is the European horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum).

Edibility

  • Chestnuts: Are edible and are often roasted and consumed, especially during the winter months. They have a sweet and nutty flavour and are used in various culinary dishes.
  • Horse Chestnuts: Are not edible and are toxic to humans and the majority of animals when consumed (including squirrels). They contain a compound called aesculin, which can cause nausea, vomiting, and other symptoms if ingested.

Appearance

  • Chestnuts: Have a tawny colour and a pointy tip. Their outer husk is covered in soft, fuzzy spikes.
  • Horse Chestnuts: These are rounder with a glossy appearance and lack a pointy tip. Their outer husk has fewer but harder and more pronounced spikes.

Uses

  • Chestnuts: Apart from culinary uses, chestnuts are also used to make flour and are sometimes used in traditional medicines.
  • Horse Chestnuts: While not edible, they have been used in traditional medicine, especially in treatments for varicose veins and haemorrhoids. They are also popularly used in the children’s game “conkers” in the UK.

Leaves

  • Chestnuts: Have long, lance-shaped leaves with serrated edges.
  • Horse Chestnuts: Have palmate leaves, usually comprising 5-7 leaflets radiating from a central point.
Horse Chestnuts (Conkers) v Chestnuts
Horse Chestnuts (Conkers) v Chestnuts

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 not safe to eat and 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.

What Animals Eat Conkers?

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. Due to the aesculin, 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!

Why Do Squirrels Collect Conkers if They Don’t Eat Them?

Squirrels have a primal instinct to eat as much as they can during the autumn, and then hoard nuts, seeds, and other foods to store for the winter. They know that once the cold 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 conkers 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.

Squirrel with a Conker
Squirrel with a Conker

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:

Vegetables

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!

Nuts

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!

Fruits

One thing that squirrels love to eat is fruit. They love to eat apples, and citrus fruits like oranges, mangoes and nectarines, peaches, plums, kiwis, figs, grapes, and more.

Fungi

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.

Eggs

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 of food, larger squirrels have been known to attack the birds or get hatchlings and young chicks.  They may even steal eggs from chicken coops.

Insects

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.

Other

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.

Squirrel Holding a Conker
Squirrel Holding a Conker

Conclusion

So, for the question, “Do squirrels eat conkers?” the short answer is No because the aesculin upsets their digestive system.  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 digging holes in your garden, we have an article for you.

Squirrel Diet Infographic

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.

Do squirrels eat chestnuts?

Yes, squirrels do eat chestnuts. Chestnuts are among the various nuts and seeds that form a part of a squirrel’s diet. When chestnuts fall from the tree and shed their spiky outer husk, squirrels often gather them, eat them, or store them for later consumption.


Author

Trevor Wright is not just a seasoned horticulturist; he’s the esteemed Garden Doctor. With a BSc in Horticulture and years of hands-on experience in the soil, Trevor has become a trusted mentor for all things gardening. As the founder of Garden Doctor, he’s committed to clarifying the intricacies of gardening, offering straightforward advice that’s rooted in years of practice. His writing is a garden of how-tos, savvy insights, and comprehensive guides that enable individuals to nurture and grow their garden dreams. When he’s not knee-deep in garden beds, Trevor is at his keyboard passing on his green-thumbed wisdom to budding gardeners, ensuring that the legacy of sustainable and joyful gardening blossoms far and wide.


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