Most of you are undoubtedly familiar with the gray squirrel (aka “Nuts” to the Great Park Pursuit (GPP) families), but there are over 200 species of squirrels worldwide and in our area the most common are the red squirrel and southern flying squirrels, and less common northern flying squirrels. In other areas of the United is found the fox squirrel (1.5 – 3 lbs.) which is larger than the gray squirrel (1-1.5 lbs.), but is very similar in behavior. Red squirrels are half the size of gray squirrels. The gray squirrel also has color phases. They can be black or white. Albino, gray squirrels are white with pink eyes.
In spite of its name flying squirrels do not fly, but glide using a flying membrane, called a “patagium”. This loose fold of skin stretches from the front leg to the hind leg on each side of the body. The flattened tail helps in steering. Squirrels have long, flexible toes and padded feet that aid them in climbing and jumping in trees. The southern flying squirrel was able to glide a horizontal distance 150 ft. from a height of 60 ft up in a tree. Females are known to carry their young while gliding…sounds like a fun ride!
Baby squirrels called kits or kittens are born blind and helpless, but within 8-10 weeks become somewhat independent. There are between 2-5 squirrels in a litter and often they have 2 litters in a year. A group of squirrels is called a “scurry” or a “dray”. Gray squirrels are social, they like to hang out with other squirrels, but the red squirrel prefers to be left alone and is territorial and more aggressive. The flying squirrel tends to be solitary, stays to itself in the summer, but in the winter they have found 20 huddled up together.
You will see gray squirrel nests made of leaves and twigs in the high up in a tree. They use their body to make a cavity that they line with shredded bark, leaves or grass. A more permanent home is made in the cavity of a trunk or branch of a tree. Red squirrels normally make their nests in a cavity of a tree and prefer coniferous “cone bearing” trees, but they are adaptable and sometimes build nests beneath a downed log.
Depending on the season squirrels select different foods – nuts and acorns (mast), mushrooms, fruit, tree buds and flowers, even bird eggs, nestlings and insects. Gray squirrels will often bury acorns and use their memory and keen sense of smell to find where they buried them. Because they bury more than they recover this helps oak trees to grow.
Red squirrels prefer to feed on pine cones and the buds of spruce trees. You can discover where red squirrels have been by looking for their feeding sites – either huge piles of scales from pine cones, called “middens”, or as we see below our spruce trees the tips of the branches, about 4-5 inches long scattered beneath the tree. They nip the twigs to get at the terminal buds to eat. Like humans, red squirrels also tap sugar maple trees for sap. They bite through the bark with their large incisors (front teeth). After the sap hardens on the tree they lick it with their tongues and bite it with their teeth.
If you come upon, as I like to call a “dinner plate” in the woods, a stump with leftover pieces of nut shells or acorns you might be able to tell if a flying squirrel or a gray squirrel has had a meal here. Squirrels, and also chipmunks, break the nut in many pieces to get at the “meat” inside. Flying squirrels tend to make just one opening. They don’t tend to chip away at the shells, so you will see small, round holes with smooth edges. This might be the only way you can tell if a flying squirrel has been around since they are “nocturnal”, using their big eyes to help them see better at night.
As cool as squirrels are you definitely don’t want them to get into your house, so if they do, you can live trap them and after making sure more aren’t in there find the holes and close them back up. Also, if you don’t want them to get in your bird feeders, knowing that gray squirrels are excellent jumpers, place them where they can’t get them and choose a feeder that is harder for them to get in to.
One more cool fact about squirrels. Did you know that sometimes they “migrate” to find food? In 1933, there is a report of 1,000 or more swimming across the Connecticut River. One legend has it that when they reached a river, they would float on bark, hoisting their large tails for sails. Let me know the next time you see a squirrel swimming or sailing in the water…that would be an amazing site to see!
Tracking and the Art of Seeing by Paul Rezendes
New England Wildlife Habitat , Natural History, and Distribution by Richard M. DeGraaf and Mariko Yamasaki