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You've probably seen them in trees in your yard or neighborhood in Minnesota, but if it's not a bird's nest, just what is that big ball of leaves?

The strange Winter That Wasn't of 2023 and 2024 hasn't given us much snow (and what little that did fall has long since melted), which might be why I've noticed several of these big balls of leaves in trees in our neighborhood here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Maybe you noticed them, too.

I always just thought they were the nest of one of Minnesota's many native birds, like robins, blue jays, or one of the species of sparrows that call the Bold North home year-round. But, it turns out that is incorrect. Well, it's half incorrect.

Curt St. John/Townsquare Media-Rochester, MN
A squirrel drey in a silver maple tree in southeast Minnesota. (Curt St. John/Townsquare Media-Rochester, MN)

That's because while those big balls of leaves scattered in trees across the Gopher State are, in fact, nests, they aren't made by birds. So just what are they? They're actually nests made by squirrels!

Technically, these leafy nests are also called 'dreys.' And according to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, they're fairly common in Minnesota in the fall and winter:

Dreys can be seen high in treetops. These are constructed of twigs and leaves, are spherical inside, and are typically lined with soft materials such as moss, shredded bark or pine needles. The entrance hole is usually located at the bottom of the drey facing the trunk to keep out rain.

The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum says squirrels native to Minnesota, like the red squirrel and the Eastern grey squirrel, are notorious drey-makers and tend to use those leafy homes for a year or two before abandoning them.

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And, unlike birds, who use nests only for incubating eggs and raising young chicks until the fledgling stage in the spring and summer, squirrels in Minnesota use their dreys for shelter and raising their young year-round.

However, this Mass Audobon story says that some species of squirrels, like the Eastern grey squirrel, do use dreys in the warmer months but prefer to spend the cold months in a more protected place, like a tree cavity.

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