Some hunters might say that the white-tailed deer is autumn’s animal icon. Others, perhaps the Canada goose, maybe the bears that begin to gorge for a long winter’s nap, but I say the ubiquitous tree squirrel is the keystone of autumn.
Who else scurries around creating middens or caches of pine cones (red squirrel) or buries nuts of all kinds (gray squirrel, fox squirrel) around your yard, your neighbor’s yard, and someone else’s two blocks over?
The tree squirrel has to be one of those animals that are so common they become invisible—except when we’re swerving to avoid crushing them under our car tires. They are found all over the world though not in Australia, Madagascar, and Antarctica.
These rodents have earned the ire of people because of their mildly destructive habits in tearing up gardens, stripping tree bark, and raiding bird feeders, and in my case, chewing up my bike seat after a red squirrel was trapped in my shed for two days.
They’ve earned many names here in North America: tree rat, puck-o’-the-pines, fairy diddle, and bannertail among others. The Ojibwa people (who resided (still do actually) in Michigan called them kitchi-adjidamo meaning big squirrel. The genus Sciurus comes from Greek and it means shadow tail.
Here in the U.S. the biggest is the fox squirrel and the smallest is the southern flying squirrel. While Pakistan holds the record for the largest existing species: the woolly flying squirrel.
Michigan is home to three tree squirrel species, the fox Sciuris niger (photo courtesy of wikimedia commons), the gray (which can also have black fur) S. carolinensis, and the smallest of the three, the red, Tamiasciuris hudsonicus. In addition, we have the southern flying squirrel, and farther north, the northern flying squirrel, fortuitously enough.
Tree squirrels can see in color and have a very strong sense of smell, which scientists previously thought that meant they could locate sources of cached food, but that seems to not be the case.
There is more than one coloring pattern for all North American species which confused the early naturalists.
All tree squirrels (at least in North America) share the following characteristics:
• They have whiskers (referred to as vibrissae) used to help them in dark nests and tree cavities
• Their front feet have four digits and the rear five
• While observing squirrels climbing, pay attention to their rear paws; they can turn their ankles a cringe-inducing 180° to allow for hanging, eating, and speedy vertical descent from a tree.
• The characteristic bushy tail serves as shade, protection from the elements, balance, and communication
• Different squirrels have different diets, but all overlap somewhere in the following: nuts, acorns, pine cones, insects, buds, berries, fungi, nestling birds, bird eggs, and corn
Tree squirrels have an aesthetic appeal, but their newborns do not. Blind, hairless, and with ear flaps closed, they are rather ugly (yes, it’s a judgment) until the fur comes in. They are born in litters of one to five with two to four being the average. The gestation period is 44 days for gray squirrels and 44-45 for foxes.
Squirrel romance is limited to the brief conjugal encounter as there is no bonding between parents.
Tree squirrels tend to live about 4-5 years, but cars (as many of us can testify) tend to shorten that length considerably. Disease and starvation beat out automobiles as vehicles (heh!) for death. Severe cold weather is handy at culling, too.
Random squirrel facts
• They can run 16.7 mph on flat ground
• They can swim, dog-paddle style, for short distances
• They are “seed predators” (cue scary music).
• They don’t hibernate, if you hadn’t noticed
• They are diurnal. When was the last time you saw a squirrel traipsing around at night?
I have alternately loved and hated squirrels. I used to hand feed a red squirrel at my maternal grandparent’s island home in Canada as a child. I also remember being about 14 years old and sneaking up behind a squirrel next to a silver maple in the front yard of my childhood home and pulling its tail.
I also remember a few times of cartoonishly chasing squirrels off of my backyard bird feeder before I invested in a baffle.
So, go out in the brisk weather, observe these familiar rodents. Pay attention to the arched pattern the body and tail of the fox squirrel as it hops across your lawn. Can you spot the red squirrel scurry atop your power lines to a tree? Are there more black varieties of gray squirrels than gray around your home?
Go out, come back and report.
I used a couple of good resources for this post. North American Tree Squirrels by Michael A. Steele and John L. Koprowski wrote a more “sciencey” book, but it is still readable by the educated reader. Squirrels: A Wildlife Handbook by Kim Long is lighter on the science and covers much of the folklore about squirrels. Together, you would probably have all the knowledge you need about squirrels aside from your own observations.