Adapt or die: Life of gray and fox squirrels


Life in the natural world can be harsh, especially when environmental conditions change. Species that specialize in certain foods or habitats or require particularly large expanses of land become rare or even die out.

Passenger pigeons, Kirkland’s warblers, grizzly bears and hellbenders come immediately to mind. Adapt or die is the law of the land.

Species that can adjust to changes in habitat or food availability can thrive. Think white-tailed deer, coyotes, raccoons, opossums, song sparrows and chickadees.


Among the most adaptable species are gray and fox squirrels. Originally these arboreal rodents inhabited deciduous forests from the east coast to the Mississippi River.

As Europeans colonized North America, they rolled with the punches. They did well in open woods.

And when the chestnut blight destroyed their favorite food, they switched to acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts and beechnuts.

Today squirrels are abundant in older neighborhoods and city parks where oaks, hickories, and walnut trees provide food and safe haven.

If you need convincing and live near a wooded area, watch for squirrels at your bird feeders. When they are not helping themselves to sunflower seeds, they are busy chasing each other.

But it’s serious business. January marks the first of two breeding seasons for gray and fox squirrels.

These single-file pursuits can continue — up one tree, down another, along a fallen log — for an hour. After a short rest to devour an acorn or grab a few sunflower seeds, the chase resumes.

All the while the squirrels scold each other with a repetitious series of guttural barks. These “squirrel races” actually represent one of the early stages of squirrel courtship.

The chase

Chasing females is an important part of the ritual. With occasional breaks for food and rest, these chases continue for several weeks.

Eventually the female accepts the overtures of the male that stays closest to her. In nature, persistence pays dividends.

Gray and fox squirrels mate in January. The breeding biology of these squirrels is similar. Gestation is surprisingly long for such small rodents.

Litters of two to five kits (average three) are born in a tree cavity lined with leaves 44 to 45 days after mating.

Birthing peaks in mid-March. Newborn squirrels measure about 2 inches in length and weigh about 1/2 ounce.

The young develop slowly. Baby squirrels open their eyes at four to five weeks and wean at about eight weeks. It’s usually May before young squirrels can be seen scampering in treetops.

They remain with their mother another four to five weeks before she prods them to independence.

By the time momma squirrel bounces the kids, she’s ready to start all over.

Another series of chases ensues in early June and leads to a second litter in July or early August. In years following a poor nut crop or a severe winter, females forego the summer litter.

If you’re not familiar with them, gray and fox squirrels can be difficult to distinguish. Grays are smaller, a pound and a half, and have an overall grayish cast that contrasts with a white belly.

Their tails have a frosted look because the tips of the tail hairs are white.

Fox squirrels weigh about 2 pounds, are a grizzled rusty brown, and have rusty bellies. Their tails are not frosted.


Melanistic forms of both species are not uncommon. “Black” squirrels are not a distinct species; they are dark forms of gray and fox squirrels.

Melanism, essentially an overdose of dark pigments, is under genetic control, so populations of black squirrels tend to be local and isolated.

A population of “black” gray squirrels inhabited the campus of Michigan State University in the late 1970s, and I’ve also seen black gray squirrels on the campus of Kent State University.

Nature frowns on individuals that stand out in a crowd — they’re easy for predators to spot.

Though nuts are squirrels’ favorite foods, they are not available in spring and early summer. At those times squirrels broadened their diet to include fruits, berries, fungi, corn, insects, bird eggs and even small nestlings.

When birds are nesting, squirrels can be birds’ worst nightmare.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at or contact him directly at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.


    109 Comments by: Tom Nardi
    January 15, 2018

    The easiest way to protect bird feeders, homes, power lines and car wires is to
    trap grey squirrels with a Havahart model 1083 and then put them in a fish
    tank for about 10 minutes. I’ve sent more than 200 grey squirrels to squirrel
    heaven in less than 4 years. The 1083 is much more effective than the
    old fashioned Havahart traps. It can be set with one hand in less than
    10 seconds.

    Then at night I reconfigure my squirrel traps by placing Thomcat saw, toothed
    plastic mouse traps inside them and placing them near the fence line.
    I’ve caught 42 mice since Nov 1 in a suburban neighborhood that I would never
    have guessed had a mouse infestation. (I only noticed this because something
    began stealing the peanut butter from my squirrel traps at night and deductive
    reasoning led me to mousetraps.)

    I place the mouse traps inside the squirrel traps to protect small birds
    and other wildlife from being killed in my traps. Mice are the only
    animals small enough to enter through the wires of a closed squirrel trap.
    When I wake up, I then set the traps for squirrels again. If you wait to see
    mice inside your home before you set traps, you are setting yourself up for
    a big problem.

    Local governments and/or power companies should be paying people a
    bounty to trap grey squirrels. Most people are too lazy and/or too stupid
    to do this without some financial incentive

    In the last century humans in North America hunted squirrel predators
    like hawks, foxes, coyotes etc nearly to extinction and since humans
    have created this current grey squirrel crisis it is now our job to fix it.
    Some states have extended their squirrel hunting seasons in recent
    years for this explicit reason but that is not going to have any impact on
    urban and suburban squirrel populations.

    When you use google to find news stories for “squirrels” it very
    seldom involves good news.
    Most frequently squirrels are mentioned in stories about house fires,
    eating car wire insulation or some other type of catastrophe, stories about
    some bizarre incident, or stories about some crazy person who thinks a grey
    squirrel is his or her friend.

    The news story below tells you all you need to know about the problems
    grey squirrels are causing all across this country. If Muslims were
    causing 3,456 power outages EVERY YEAR ! it would be considered a
    national emergency, and the news media would be dedicating entire
    shows to tell us about it.

    Squirrel knocks out power for more than 12,500 in Erie County
    By Keith McShea | Published November 18, 2018
    “Squirrels are a leading cause of power outages. In 2016, a survey by
    the American Public Power Association said that wildlife, notably
    squirrels, were the leading cause of power outages, followed by
    failure of overhead equipment, weather and vegetation.

    The APPA reported that in 2016, utilities reported 3,456 outages
    “caused by the ubiquitous rodents” that cut off power to more than
    193,873 customers.”



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