Eastern Fox Squirrel
The Eastern Fox squirrel the largest species of tree squirrel native to North America. Despite the differences in size and coloration, they are sometimes mistaken for American Red Squirrels or Eastern gray squirrels in areas where both species co-exist. The squirrel's total body length measures 45 to 70 cm (17.7 to 27.6 in), tail length is 20 to 33 cm (7.9 to 13.0 in), and they range in weight from 500 to 1,000 grams (1.1 to 2.2 lb). There is no sexual dimorphism in size or appearance. Individuals tend to be smaller in the west. There are three distinct geographical phases in coloration: In most areas the animals upper body is brown-grey to brown-yellow with a typically brownish-orange underside, while in eastern regions such as the Appalachians there are more strikingly-patterned dark brown and black squirrels with white bands on the face and tail. In the south can be found isolated communities with uniform black coats. To help with climbing, they have sharp claws, developed extensors of digits and flexors of forearms, and abdominal musculature. Fox squirrels have excellent vision and well-developed senses of hearing and smell. They use scent marking to communicate with other fox squirrels. "Fox squirrels also have several sets of vibrissae, thick hairs or whiskers that are used as touch receptors to sense the environment. These are found above and below their eyes, on their chin and nose, and on each forearm.
Fox squirrels are strictly diurnal, non-territorial, and spend more of their time on the ground than most other tree squirrels. They are still, however, agile climbers. They construct two types of homes called "dreys", depending on the season. Summer dreys are often little more than platforms of sticks high in the branches of trees, while winter dens are usually hollowed out of tree trunks by a succession of occupants over as many as 30 years. Cohabitation of these dens is not uncommon, particularly among breeding pairs.
They are not particularly gregarious or playful, in fact they have been described as solitary and asocial creatures, coming together only in breeding season. They have a large vocabulary, consisting most notably of an assortment of clucking and chucking sounds, not unlike some "game" birds, and they warn the listening world of approaching threats with distress screams. In the spring and fall, groups of fox squirrels clucking and chucking together can make a small ruckus. They also make high-pitched whines during mating. When threatening another fox squirrel, they will stand upright with their tail over their back and flick it.
They are impressive jumpers, easily spanning fifteen feet in horizontal leaps and free-falling twenty feet or more to a soft landing on a limb or trunk.
Eastern fox squirrels are most abundant in open forest stands with little understory vegetation; they are not found in stands with dense undergrowth. Ideal habitat is small stands of large trees interspersed with agricultural land. The size and spacing of pines and oaks are among the important features of eastern fox squirrel habitat. The actual species of pines and oaks themselves may not always be a major consideration in defining eastern fox squirrel habitat. Eastern fox squirrels are often observed foraging on the ground several hundred meters from the nearest woodlot. Eastern fox squirrels also commonly occupy forest edge habitat.
Eastern fox squirrels have two types of shelters: leaf nests and tree dens. They may have two tree cavity homes or a tree cavity and a leaf nest. Tree dens are preferred over leaf nests during the winter and for raising young. When den trees are scarce, leaf nests are used year-round. Leaf nests are built during the summer months in forks of deciduous trees about 30 feet (9 m) above the ground. Eastern fox squirrels use natural cavities and crotches (forked branches of a tree) as tree dens. Den trees in Ohio had an average diameter at breast height (d.b.h.) of 21 inches (53 cm) and were an average of 58.6 yards (52.7 m) from the nearest woodland border. About 88% of den trees in eastern Texas had an average d.b.h. of 12 inches (30 cm) or more. Dens are usually 6 inches (15 cm) wide and 14 to 16 (35–41 cm) inches deep. Den openings are generally circular and about 2.9 to 3.7 inches (7.3–9.4 cm). Eastern fox squirrels may make their own den in a hollow tree by cutting through the interior; however, they generally use natural cavities or cavities created by northern flickers (Colaptes auratus) or red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus). Crow nests have also been used by eastern fox squirrels.
Eastern fox squirrels use leaf nests or tree cavities for shelter and litter rearing. Forest stands dominated by mature to over mature trees provide cavities and a sufficient number of sites for leaf nests to meet the cover requirements. Overstory trees with an average d.b.h. of 15 inches (38 cm) or more generally provide adequate cover and reproductive habitat. Optimum tree canopy closure for eastern fox squirrels is from 20% to 60%. Optimum conditions understory closure occur when the shrub-crown closure is 30% or less.
The fox squirrel's natural range extends throughout the eastern United States, north into the southern prairie provinces of Canada, and west to the Dakotas, Colorado, and Texas. They are absent (although sometimes vagrants) from New England, New Jersey, most of New York, as well as Northern and eastern Pennsylvania. They have been introduced to both northern and southern California. While very versatile in their habitat choices, fox squirrels are most often found in forest patches of 40 hectares or less with an open understory, or in urban neighborhoods with trees. They thrive best among trees such as oak, hickory, walnut, and pine that produce winter-storable foods like nuts. Western range extensions in Great Plains regions such as Kansas are associated with riverine corridors of cottonwood. A subspecies native to several eastern US states is the Delmarva fox squirrel (S. n. cinereus).
In Illinois, eastern fox squirrels rely heavily on hickories from late August through September. Pecans, black walnuts (Juglans nigra), osage orange (Maclura pomifera) fruits, and corn are also important fall foods. In early spring, elm buds and seeds are the most important food. In May and June, mulberries (Morus spp.) are heavily used. By early summer, corn in the milk stage becomes a primary food.
During the winter in Kansas, osage orange is a staple item supplemented with seeds of the Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus dioicus) and honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), corn, wheat, eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides var. deltoides) bark, ash seeds, and eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) berries. In the spring, eastern fox squirrels feed primarily on buds of elm, maple, and oaks but also on newly sprouting leaves and insect larvae.
Eastern fox squirrels in Ohio prefer hickory nuts, acorns, corn, and black walnuts. The squirrels are absent where two or more of these mast trees are missing. Eastern fox squirrels also eat buckeyes, seeds and buds of maple and elm, hazelnuts (Corylus spp.), blackberries (Rubus spp.), and tree bark. In March, they feed mainly on buds and seeds of elm, maple, and willow. In Ohio, eastern fox squirrels have the following order of food preference: white oak (Quercus alba) acorns, black oak (Quercus velutina) acorns, red oak (Quercus rubra) acorns, walnuts, and corn.
In eastern Texas, eastern fox squirrels prefer the acorns of bluejack oak, southern red oak (Q. falcata), and overcup oak (Q. lyrata). The least preferred foods are acorns of swamp chestnut oak (Q. michauxii) and overcup oak. In California, eastern fox squirrels feed on English walnuts (J. regia), oranges, avocados, strawberries, and tomatoes. In midwinter, they feed on eucalyptus seeds.
In Michigan, eastern fox squirrels feed on a variety of foods throughout the year. Spring foods are mainly tree buds and flowers, insects, bird eggs, and seeds of red maple (Acer rubrum), silver maple (Acer saccharinum), and elms. Summer foods include a variety of berries, plum and cherry pits, fruits of basswood (Tilia americana), fruits of box elder (Acer negundo), black oak acorns, hickory nuts, seeds of sugar (Acer saccharum) and black maple (Acer nigrum), grains, insects, and unripe corn. Fall foods consist mainly of acorns, hickory nuts, beechnuts, walnuts, butternuts (Juglans cinerea), and hazelnuts. Caches of acorns and hickory nuts are heavily used in winter.
Because squirrels prey so heavily on the seeds of trees they play a significant role in shaping the composition of forests. They may eat (along with other seed-eating animals) almost all of the tree seeds that trees produce in some years. When squirrels bury seeds and forget them, these seeds are likely to sprout where they were placed. Squirrels, therefore, act to promote the growth of certain kinds of trees. Fox squirrels are also important prey items for small predators because of their abundance in the environment.