SQUIRRELS ARE IMPRESSIVE?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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