by Whit Gibbons

February 9, 2014

Q: I saw an animal today that I have never seen before. It looked like a gray squirrel with a black head but was much bigger and stood up on its hind legs alongside the highway. When I slowed down to get a closer look, it ran to the edge of the woods and up into a pine tree. I see gray squirrels all the time but have never seen one that looked or acted like this one. Could this have been some exotic species?

A: That is a classic description of a fox squirrel, one of our native North American tree squirrels and the closest relative to the well-known gray squirrel. Although the two species differ in size, appearance, and a few aspects of ecology and behavior, their biology is similar in many ways. Both occupy the same regions throughout most of the eastern United States, with gray squirrels ranging farther north, including into New England, and fox squirrels occurring as far west as Montana and Wyoming.

Although both species can be found in parts of southern Canada, neither hibernates, relying on stores of acorns and nuts that they cache during warmer months to get through a cold winter.

The two most obvious physical differences between fox squirrels and gray squirrels are body size and coloration. Numerous studies by wildlife biologists indicate that gray squirrels are much smaller, ranging in total length of tail and body from about 15 inches to less than 21 inches, the maximum size ever reported. Typical weights for gray squirrels range from less than 12 ounces to a maximum of 26 ounces. Fox squirrels commonly reach total lengths of 18 to more than 27 inches. They are also much heavier, weighing from about 18 ounces to more than 48 ounces, just under twice as much as the largest gray squirrels.

Coat color is usually a sure way to distinguish a gray squirrel from a fox squirrel. The standard light gray color pattern of the former is familiar to anyone living in the eastern part of the country. Some gray squirrels may have a reddish or cinnamon color and occasional populations may be solid black.

Fox squirrels vary much more in color throughout their range than gray squirrels. Particular color patterns are characteristic of certain localities and regions. In parts of the Carolinas and Georgia, a large squirrel that has a black body with white ears and feet or a silver body with a black head is a fox squirrel. In parts of Alabama and Mississippi, fox squirrels are more commonly tan, orange, or even reddish in coloration.

Although some wildlife biologists have tried to use geographical variation in body color for taxonomic classification, one extensive research study concluded that "pelage characteristics are too varied and subjective to permit consistent determination of subspecies." In other words, a fox squirrel with black, silver, tan, or orange fur might show up in any part of the range.

One reason for the rarity of fox squirrel sightings is that they require a much larger area of habitat than do their smaller cousins, which have a significantly greater population density. Wildlife studies in several southern and midwestern states found numerous gray squirrel populations ranging from 350 to 3,500 individuals per square mile. Comparable censuses of fox squirrels seldom yielded more than 100 per square mile. Also, according to one report, fox squirrels have been reduced in population size by half or more in many parts of their natural range due to habitat loss, especially old growth forests.

The fox squirrel is a federally endangered species in parts of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. In my experience, beyond the occasional chance encounter with a fox squirrel in the woods, the most likely places to see them are along the edges of golf courses and parkways.

Fox squirrels are one of our marvelous native wildlife inhabitants. If you should be lucky enough to see one at your bird feeder, appreciate its presence.

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