Fox squirrels (Order Rodentia\ Family Scuridae\ Sciurus Niger)
The fox squirrel is named for its gray and red colored fur that resembles the pelt of a gray fox. It is also called the mangrove fox squirrel, Sherman’s fox squirrel, or the stump-eared squirrel. The fox squirrel has ten different subspecies. They can be found from the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas on their western boundary to the Atlantic Ocean on their eastern boundary with the exception of the New England area. Fox squirrels have been introduced into California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. They show several different physical characteristics that change according to their natural geographical range and habitat.
In the northeastern section of their natural range, fox squirrels have silvery-gray backs and yellowish bellies, in the western section of their range they’re brownish-red in color and in the south most fox squirrels are gray and black or brown and black with most having a dark head and white ears and nose. Their guard hairs are tipped with yellow, tan, orange, or brown. Fox squirrels can also have white feet or a white tip on the tail. The fox squirrels in the south eastern part of their range tend to be larger (about three pounds) than their northern cousins (about two pounds). This tends to conflict with Bergmann's rule that northern subspecies of the same animal tend to be larger. Unlike some animal species, there is no distinct difference between bucks and does in regards to size or coat colors. The only sure way to tell them apart is to turn them over and look.
Some squirrels are born with unusual colors or in the case of albinos, no color. An animal may be born darker or lighter than normal. Some can be completely white or black. The following towns take great civic pride in their white squirrel colonies; Olney, IL; Marionville, MO; Kenton, TN; Brevard, NC and Exeter, ON. These towns take pride in their black squirrels; Marysville, KS and Council Bluffs, IA. There are other towns and cities with both black and white squirrel colonies but they’re not as actively promoted.
The fox squirrel is the largest (2 – 3 lb. weight, 18 – 29 in. length) tree squirrel in North America and has short, rounded ears. It has a stubby neck as compared to the gray squirrel. A fox squirrel’s tail is long, very bushy, and has yellow tips on its tail hairs. The tail can be used for a variety of reasons; it can be wrapped around the squirrel for warmth, used as an aid for balance, or spread and used as a parachute. The tail is also used to communicate with other squirrels; playful or when exhibiting quick, jerky movements nervousness or excitement.
A fox squirrel’s range can be ten to forty acres and with overlapping territories of different squirrels. They sometimes share stores and nests in winter. Their main diet consists of left over mast or pine nuts in the spring, seeds of elms, maple, and pine in the summer, and acorns in the fall and winter, but they will also eat berries, bird eggs, bulbs, buds, certain flowers, frogs, fruit, green shoots, inner bark, insects, mushrooms, nuts, roots, seeds, and vegetables. A fox squirrel may drink water on occasion but the majority of moisture they receive is through succulent plants that they eat. When acorns or pine nuts are available, fox squirrels are very busy harvesting as many as they can find and storing them by burying them in the ground. Many acorns and nuts are infested with bugs and would not store well. These infested seeds are detected by the squirrel’s keen sense of smell and thrown away or eaten right away. The ones that are clear of bugs are selected for storage. The squirrel will clean the seed by licking it or rubbing it against its face, which also places a smell from its scent glands on the seed. After picking a spot they dig a hole with their front paws, push the one to three seeds in and quickly cover it up. Later the squirrel will relocate them in the winter even through the snow for a meal using their keen nose.
Squirrels are very important in planting several species of trees. Both gray squirrels and fox squirrels "scatter-hoard" their food. This means that they will bury from one to three nuts or seeds in each of thousands of locations and this allows a wide dispersal of tree seeds buried at a depth of less than two inches, the ideal depth for planting seeds. Many buried seeds are either not found or not used and become new trees in the forest. A single squirrel can bury several thousand seeds in a year. Those maple, oak, or pine trees you admire so much in the fall may have been leftovers from a squirrel’s unfinished meal.
You will find lots of litter under a fox squirrels summer drey (nest) where it has sharpened its teeth on nutshells and twigs. Like all rodents, a fox squirrel constantly needs to gnaw. A fox squirrel’s teeth grow five to six inches in a year. If they did not gnaw so much on hard objects they soon would be unable to chew their food with their back teeth (molars). For the same reason a squirrel will gnaw on electrical lines resulting in loss of electrical power or, especially in winter when they move into attics for warmth, starting fires in homes or schools. A squirrel’s front teeth (incisors) consists of a hard front part made of enamel and a softer back part that wears away faster as they’re used to gnaw. The back molar teeth are used to grind the food in smaller particles and the tongue is used to move the food around for more efficient chewing and to sort out unwanted pieces like small bits of nutshells.
Fox squirrels prefer over mature forests near a water source with trees that have their leaves touching and very little or no undergrowth. Faster and more maneuverable on the ground than their relative, the gray squirrel, they will feed further into an open field away from a tree. Though it’s classed as a tree squirrel, a fox squirrel seeks to escape harm by out running the danger not climbing. Because of their diet, fox squirrels prefer hardwood or pine forests surrounding an open pasture, garden or grain field. Pecans, corn and soybean from agricultural fields are especially favorite food items.
Squirrels make three kinds of houses; dens nests in hollows of over mature trees, usually a deciduous variety like oak or maple, with holes from rot or woodpeckers, winter dreys (nests) and summer dreys. Den trees when available are used in the winter and are the preferred shelter because the survival rate for squirrel pups is forty percent higher in tree dens compared to leaf nests. But it takes forty to fifty years for a tree to grow large enough for natural cavities to appear that a squirrel can develop into a den and may have a useful life of ten to twenty years depending on the tree species. Due to extensive logging in the late 1800s and through the 1900s for agricultural, commercial or lately residential reasons, den trees are not as common now. So the fox squirrel must make winter dreys for the raising of their young. About thirty feet up, at a major fork in the tree, they build a roughly ball shaped structure over a foot or two in diameter with one entrance. The watertight outside is composed of twigs, pine needles, or leaves. The inside cavity is six to eight inches in diameter and can be lined with feathers, fur, grass, leaves, moss, shredded bark, etc. any organic material that adds insulation. Trees selected are usually close together as part of a windbreak, safe travel to other trees and to give easy exit in case of predators. Summer dreys are also located in the upper third of mature trees about thirty feet up, but are not so elaborate in construction, sometimes they’re just open platforms used for resting or eating. Manmade nest boxes can be made as a substitute or supplement to natural cavities and are good father son projects.
Squirrels usually keep their nest very clean but because they have parasites like fleas, the fox squirrel will on the average have three active dreys near food sources and an additional three or four not being used at that time. Squirrels have been known to build as many as ten dreys in one year. Watching the nests is like watching a shell game as some squirrels will switch nests with other squirrels or the nest may not have any squirrels in it at all. This could be very frustrating for fleas and predators, which is probably why squirrels build so many nests.Fox squirrels are diurnal and are most active in summer and fall in the early morning from 5 to 9 a.m. and the late afternoon from 4 to 6 p.m. They have a wide angle of vision that is useful in spotting predators. They also have very sharp eyesight similar to humans allowing them to judge distances through parallax a trait that is very important when leaping from one branch to another several feet above the ground. Because a squirrel’s eyes are located at the upper sides of its head, a squirrel may move its head side to side or up and down to gather more information prior to the leap. The acute eyesight of a squirrel can recognize other individuals several yards away. Fox squirrels usually have two mating seasons in a year, in mid-winter and early summer. This is the time of year when you see adult squirrels chasing each other around the treetops like juveniles. This is a great time for watching squirrels as they perform really spectacular acrobatics. Males are establishing a pecking order and usually the eldest male is the "top squirrel". The top squirrel usually has the most squirrel-girl friends and produces the most offspring because he has the best and strongest genetics for survival. A male squirrel will chase a female squirrel for days courting her continuously until she decides to accept him. She will only mate for one day and after their nuptials are complete the male will leave to pursue other female squirrels. The doe will prepare a nest of dry leaves, typically in a hollow tree and raise the litter by herself. The gestation period is about forty-two to forty-nine days. Yearling does usually have just one litter of young that year, while more mature does can have two litters. Litter size ranges from two to five pups; the winter litter is generally smaller than the summer litter. Litter size and reproductive success are closely tied to food availability, especially pine nuts and acorns. The average female produces only four offspring each year.
A newborn squirrel pup comes into the world weighing a half-ounce, eyes closed, naked, and with only their milk teeth. The pups develop slowly, growing a coat of fur in the second week and opening their eyes in the fifth week. They are nursed for eight to ten weeks and remain in the nest during that time. Once they get out of the nest, the young squirrels are called juveniles and can be seen chasing each other; playing tag, follow the leader and wrestling. They are weaned and will have ventured onto the ground. In three months, they have started to lead an independent life. Juveniles will develop their permanent teeth between the six and teeth month. Around ten to twelve months, the young adults can start producing a family of their own. Marked fox squirrels have been known to live from four to seven years in the wild and pet squirrels can live up to twelve years.
Fox squirrels communicate in a variety of ways. The most observable to humans is their barking. Squirrels sometimes will bark at people or other animals that come near their nut stashes, especially squirrels that live in parks and have very little fear of humans. They will flick their tails in all directions and will become very agitated. If you go in their direction they will move to the other side of the tree and continue their ranting about you being in their area. The pitch and length of their barks and chirps used to denote playfulness, warn other squirrels of predators, for mating calls, and to cry for help if attacked. The frequency range squirrels use is from ten hertz to ten thousand hertz. Squirrels also use the sense of smell to communicate information to other squirrels and it is used to mark territory and in the case of does the fact they are looking for a boyfriend. Urine is one secretion used for scent clues but a squirrel can use sweat and oil from their glands on the bottom of their feet as well. Fox squirrels sweat through the bottom of their feet, between their toes and between the footpads. And on a hot day, they can leave wet tracks across a dry road showing four toes on their front feet and five toes on the back feet.
The fox squirrel will shed its fur in the spring and fall. In the spring molt, shedding starts at the head and progresses towards the tail but in the fall molt, the shedding starts at the tail and progresses towards the head. The molt can take four to six weeks to complete depending on the individual squirrel.
The fox squirrel population is declining for several reasons. Although there are a lot of different predators that hunt fox squirrels like bobcats, eagles, hawks, owls, large snakes, weasels, and small boys with dogs: their main down fall is the decline of suitable habitat. In the past, the slow growing longleaf pines were quite common in the South. These trees are very resistant to burning. Fires would burn through the forest leaving the mature pine and cleaning out the undergrowth. Only a small portion of the old mixed longleaf pine and turkey oak forests remain. This amount shrinks daily as more mature trees are cut down and replanted with slash pine, a quick growing pine planted in monoculture or the ground is cleared for tract housing. Because slash pine forests are more susceptible to burning, fires are rigorously repressed and this creates thick undergrowth that is not suitable for fox squirrels environment. Slash pine grown for paper pulp is only grown for twenty to thirty years before harvesting. There are no mature or over-mature trees that can serve as den trees. Pine nut production is very minimal. So in the country, the fox squirrel population is declining while in the city because of the parks maintaining mature mast producing trees with natural den sites and keeping the undergrowth cleared, the fox squirrel’s population is actually increasing.
Fox squirrels are an important small game animal that we as hunters must take steps to preserve. If you have timberland leave a third of the tract in really old trees for den sites. If it is not possible to leave den trees or none are available, consider providing nest boxes. And leaving a few protected areas of mature longleaf pines with controlled burning to clear undergrowth, recycle nutrients, and stimulate production of squirrel food like mushrooms is recommended if we want to be able to enjoy these squirrels in a natural habitat. As you go hunting take along some acorns and push a few into the ground along fences, roads, and streams. An acorn mixture of various species in a ratio of half red oak and half white oak works best since this will vary the time of peak production of acorns when mature. Leaving aisles of uncut mature trees connecting nut and acorn producing woods to allow a wider selection of mates and a diversity of food. If you want to plant some soybeans or corn near their trees that would help also. If you do these things, you may be responsible for both preserving and increasing the number of fox squirrels in your area.