By Phil Miller, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Squirrels are one of the more common and recognized species of wildlife in the Southeast. They readily inhabit backyards and other urban areas and have adapted well to human development. What is not as well known is that there are three species of squirrels in
Gray Squirrel—The gray squirrel is the most common of the three species found in
The gray squirrel is found in deciduous forests of oak and hickory, which is typically mixed with pines and other hardwoods. They commonly eat a variety of mast such as acorns, hickory nuts, seeds and fruits and are known to raid gardens of green tomatoes and other vegetables.
Gray squirrels spend most of their time in the treetops unless gathering food or engaging in mating chases. This squirrel is common to parks and suburban yards. They are more active during early morning and late afternoon when in search of food.
Fox Squirrel—The fox squirrel is
The fox squirrel prefers upland forests of predominately open stands of oak, hickory and mixtures of pine and hardwoods. This is probably because fox squirrels are less agile climbers than gray squirrels and prefer to stay on the ground. Fox squirrels are not early risers. They prefer to wait to midmorning before coming active and are not active again until or late afternoon.
The breeding season of the gray and fox squirrel begins in early February and again in early to late summer (July and August). The female will construct a den nest in a hollow tree or in a leaf nest in the branches of a mature tree. A litter typically consists of three to five young, which are weaned in about six weeks.
Southern Flying Squirrel—The smallest of the squirrel species in
This squirrel’s name is derived from its ability to glide from tree to tree. The gliding ability of the flying squirrel is due to a furred membrane attached to its wrist and ankle that allows it to glide from one point to another. The flattened tail is used as a rudder to help it steer as it glides. To allow it to see in the dark, the Southern flying squirrel has eyes that are large in proportion to its body.
People rarely see this species because it is nocturnal. It does most of its movement during the nighttime hours. Similar to gray and fox squirrels, the flying squirrel will eat hickory nuts, acorns, seeds, fruits and mushrooms but differs because it will eat insects and meat of decaying animals. Flying squirrels prefer heavily forested areas with abundant den trees and nearby water sources. It is not uncommon for as many as a dozen or more to occupy one large tree cavity during the winter months.
With breeding season similar to the other two species of squirrels, the flying squirrel prefers nesting cavities that are high in the treetops. They will also use bluebird or purple martin houses. The nests are lined with shredded inner bark, grasses, moss, and leaves. Females will give birth to two or three tiny, blind and hairless young. Young flying squirrels grow rapidly and are weaned in about five to six weeks.
Many hours are spent each year enjoying the antics of squirrels or being frustrated as they raid a backyard bird feeder. Most of the time it is the gray squirrel that is the target of attention. The other species are equally amusing and depending on your location, you may have the opportunity to enjoy them as well.
Photo credits: Gray Squirrel: Jeff Drake; Fox Squirrel: Dudley Jones; Southern Flying Squirrel: Melissa Boatner