Critter Corner No. 19
(photo by Judy Gallagher – commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55331862)
Discussing the Fox Squirrel as a member of the GPFWA fauna may seem a bit surprising. After all, we normally associate the property with wetland and prairie habitats primarily. These are hardly the sorts of places one would expect to find an arboreal (tree dwelling) mammal. But with the DNR’s acquisition of 800 acres of wooded, post-mined property known as “1000 Islands” (which lies just north of GPFWA’s Main Pool West) we now have such squirrel-friendly habitat Goose Pond.
The Fox Squirrel is large as tree squirrels go. In fact, it is the largest tree squirrel in the eastern United States with a total length of nearly two feet and an average weight of around one and a half pounds. In this area, people often call this species by the common moniker of “red squirrel”. Indeed, the fox squirrels we encounter in SW Indiana do tend to be quite reddish in color. However, in NE Indiana there lives another species of arboreal squirrel which is more properly known as the Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). This little squirrel is only about half the size of the Fox Squirrel on average.
The Fox Squirrel is highly variable in coloration throughout its range which, east of the Mississippi, extends through most of the country save for a swath from North Carolina up through the New England states. The scientific name of this species – Scirurus niger – hints at this variability. The genus name refers to the habit of the squirrel of sitting with its tail used as a sunshade. “Skia” is from the Greek meaning shadow and “oura” means tail. The Greek skiouros became the Latin sciurus, meaning squirrel in both cases. The specific name “niger” is Latin for black. In the southern United States, Fox Squirrels may be black in color and the so-called type specimen for this species was a southern animal of black coloration. In southern Alabama, I used to encounter Fox Squirrels which were locally called “monkey-faced squirrels”. These animals were much lighter in color than our local fox squirrels, more light-brownish, and had a black mask which reminded me of a raccoon. The reasons for the extreme variability of coloration in fox squirrels is not completely understood but may be related to camouflaging coloration adapted for a particular locale.
Fox squirrels prefer more open forests and forest edges compared to our Gray Squirrel which thrives in large stands of timber with a closed canopy. However, both are adaptable and may be found in towns, upon golf courses, and in city parks. Fox Squirrel distribution is closely tied to food availability of course. Their diet includes a variety of tree nuts including acorns, hickory nuts, and beech nuts. Because of their habit of caching nuts in the ground, fox squirrels are important in distributing the seeds of their food trees. These buried stores are later found, by smell it is thought, and constitute the squirrel’s primary food supply during fall, winter, and early spring. As spring progresses, there is greater abundance of food and the Fox Squirrel will then feed on maple samaras, elm seeds, flower buds, and fruits such as mulberry. Fox squirrels will also prey upon caterpillars, beetles, bird eggs, and young birds. One of their more interesting food sources is a soil fungus of the genus Endogone. Dr. J.O. Whitaker, Jr., emeritus professor of life sciences at Indiana State U., has done much to elucidate the role of this fungus as a food source for many species of small mammals. Endogone is a mycorrhizal fungus which means that it forms symbiotic relationships with forest tree roots. This association is mutualistic in that it increases the absorptive surface area of the tree roots and in return the fungus is provided a place to live and a source of carbohydrates for energy.
Fox squirrels are typically about a year old when they begin to reproduce. Mating occurs in December and January. Living as I do on the edge of a stand of deciduous forest, I am each year reminded that the squirrel’s mating season is approaching. As I glance out the window, I will notice that the squirrels are beginning to engage in almost nonstop prenuptial chases which are an important part of the ritual leading up to actual mating. These are often accompanied by much barking, “churring”, and attempts at approach by the males. The gestation period of the Fox Squirrel is about a month and a half. One to six young may be born, most often in a tree cavity; two to four offspring is typical. The emergence of the youngsters after a period of three months or so is another source of entertainment for me (or maybe I am just easily entertained). At first the young squirrels tend to stay in the vicinity of their nest cavity. Soon they become bolder and start to venture higher into the trees. I often see them seemingly at rest, on the trunk or limb of a tree, when suddenly they roar off along the limb or into the tree top as if suddenly touched with a cattle prod. I suppose this is how they develop their marvelous skill at climbing, leaping, and maintaining a foothold while avoiding a precipitous fall.
In regards to its relationship with humans, the Fox Squirrel has long-standing significance as a small game mammal. Hoosier hunters take, on average, some 300,000 Fox and Gray Squirrels each year. I must say that the periods I spent as a young adult pursuing these agile, wily, little animals are among my fondest memories. And these remembrances involve far more than shooting at quarry. I must admit however that my recollections also entail a wonderful meal of fried squirrel, biscuits and gravy dotingly prepared by my grandmother.
But, as I grew older, the taking became far less important than the engaging. This was particularly true of the instances during which my stalking skills were tested against a mammal whose eyesight and senses of smell and hearing bettered mine by far. Even more fondly remembered are the hours spent simply sitting at the base of a shagbark hickory in an early -morning woods. Recalled is the light of breaking dawn playing upon forest leaves of every imaginable shade of green; the pleasurable songs and calls of phoebe, wood thrush, and great-crested flycatcher; the occasional, rustling walk of an unaware white-tailed deer passing within feet of me. These, as well as the deep sense of peace and detachment from worldly concerns, are the things that most remain from my days as a dedicated pursuer of squirrels.
Should you be inclined to try squirrel hunting yourself, the Dept. of Natural Resources offers these reminders. The season for both Fox and Gray Squirrels runs from August 15th, 2017 through January 31st, 2018. Hunters must meet fluorescent orange clothing requirements while hunting squirrels from the first Friday in November after Nov. 3 through the end of the season. The daily bag limit is five. Good luck on your hunt! But don’t forget to spend some of your time sitting under that hickory tree, looking, listening, and letting your mind work the while.