By Randy Liles, Area Biologist
The gray squirrel is one of the more common game species hunted in Alabama and other Southeastern states. It is the most common squirrel species in the state. In the wild, gray squirrels are normally associated with a mature hardwood forest type. Yet due to their adaptability, gray squirrels are found in a variety of habitats, including neighborhoods and parks that contain sufficient mast (food) trees and cover. Forests consisting of a variety of mixed, mature hardwoods provide the best habitat. Every wildlife species has three basic requirements for survival: food, water, and cover. A wide variety of native foods provide the nutritional requirements of the gray squirrel. Some of the more preferred hard mast found in Alabama forests are acorns, hickory nuts, beechnuts, and pecans, which are used primarily in the fall and winter months. Important soft mast utilized during this same period are buds of trees and shrubs, dogwood berries, pine seeds, and blackgum fruits. Spring and summer foods are grapes, mushrooms, black cherry, apples, blackberry, and seeds for the red and sugar maple. At times, gray squirrels have been known to eat insects and herbs. In addition, anyone who has a bird feeder knows squirrels also like to raid them.
Oaks retained on one’s property for gray squirrel management should consist of trees from both the white oak group (white oak, overcup oak, and post oak) and the red oak group (water oak, blackjack oak, and northern/southern red oak). Nature has installed differences in the acorn maturities of these two groups. Therefore, if one oak group fails to produce acorn mast during the year, the other group may still be successful. Nutritionally, acorns are very important to gray squirrels as well as a number of other wildlife species. Fat and carbohydrate content is high in acorns, along with necessary minerals and nutrients such as calcium, phosphorus, and proteins. Large land tracts of primarily mature hardwoods with an understory of smaller trees and shrubs will provide ample cover habitat for gray squirrels.
Since squirrels often travel from tree to tree, hardwoods retained should be dense enough to allow squirrels to travel easily through the canopy. Natural tree cavities (dens) and leaf nests provide squirrels with shelter and protection. Dens provide more of a “permanent” home for squirrels and offer a much greater degree of protection from predators and bad weather. Leaf nests are more of a temporary home and usually do not last more than a year. There is a direct relationship between the number of available den trees and the population of gray squirrels on any given property. Usually the higher number of dens equals a higher number of gray squirrels. In areas where natural dens are insufficient, nest boxes can be built. Place nest boxes 15-30 feet above ground. One or two nest boxes per acre are recommended.
Gray squirrels don’t require large amounts of water during their daily routines. However, some water is always necessary and should be available in some form at least every quarter mile of available landscape. This will reduce extensive travel needs. Usually eastern climatic conditions provide enough free-standing water in natural streams and wet areas to support squirrels.
There are a variety of predators on gray squirrels. Climbing snakes are a serious threat to young squirrels in the nest, and other predators such as cats, dogs, foxes, hawks and owls are also present. In proper habitat, predators do not appear to excessively limit the growth of gray squirrel populations.
There is a great abundance of gray squirrels in Alabama. While they can be a nuisance when they get in an attic or hog a backyard birdfeeder, mostly they are enjoyed. A large number of hunters take to the woods every fall in pursuit of the gray squirrel with great anticipation and many more enjoy their aerial antics.