It's been a squirrely month here on the ridge. For the first time in 15 years both gray and fox squirrels are visiting my feeders. A flying squirrel has a litter of four in one of my nest boxes. A ground hog regularly climbs an elm tree to get to a platform feeder. And yesterday a chipmunk ran across my foot on its way to a pile of nuts.
These neighborly rodents we call squirrels are among our most watchable wildlife. Here's a brief profile. The family Sciuridae can be divided into three groups: tree squirrels, flying squirrels, and ground squirrels. .
Most familiar: Tree squirrels are probably the most familiar. Gray and fox squirrels inhabit parks and deciduous woodlands in the eastern U.S. Grays are smaller at 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 two pounds, are a grizzled rusty brown, and have rusty bellies. Their tails do not appear frosted.
About twice the size of a chipmunk and half the size of a gray squirrel, red squirrels are the smallest tree squirrels in North America. What they lack in size , they compensate for with pugnacity. They are vocal and aggressive. Though its reddish pelage is obvious, a red squirrel's most diagnostic feature is its prominent white eye ring. Though mature coniferous forests of white pine and hemlock are the red squirrel's preferred habitat, it also occurs in mixed woods and sometimes even pure deciduous stands.
Flying squirrels: Two species of flying squirrels inhabit the eastern woods, but the larger northern flying squirrel is much less common and confined to higher elevations and more northern latitudes. Southern flying squirrels are common throughout the eastern deciduous forest. (Just to make identification confusing, both flying squirrels and red squirrels are also often called fairy diddles.) .
Flying squirrels are small, silky soft, and have big black eyes. But they do not fly; they glide courtesy of a flap of skin that runs from wrist to ankle on each side of the body. Upon takeoff, this skin balloons and permits a controlled glide from tree to tree. The flat tail serves as a rudder. Because flying squirrels are nocturnal, they are seldom seen, except by hungry owls.
Flying squirrels and tree squirrels raise two litters per year. The first appears in June, the second in late summer. .
Two species of ground squirrels are commonly found throughout the east, and two more occur in the Midwest.
Eastern chipmunks live in forest borders and often make themselves at home in both town and country backyards. Here they select stone walls, brush piles, fallen logs, and old stumps as sites for their tunnel systems. These small, striped ground squirrels are familiar to everyone who maintains a bird feeder. Like tree squirrels, chipmunks raise two litters per year.
Road kill: Ground hogs or woodchucks are probably best known as road kill. Their habit of eating succulent vegetation along interstates and country roads is a dangerous one. In their element, however, their extensive burrow systems provide safe haven to everything from snakes and toads to rabbits and raccoons. Unlike most members of the squirrel family, ground hogs are solitary. Females drive their offspring away in late summer. Ground hogs raise just one litter each year.
Throughout the Midwest and Great Plains, thirteen-lined ground squirrels inhabit farmland, golf courses, cemeteries, lawns, and highway medians. These common, social, chipmunk-sized ground squirrels are sometimes mistakenly called gophers, but gophers belong to a completely different family of rodents. Over the last 100 years, 13-lined ground squirrels have expanded their range eastward almost to the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.
Franklin's ground squirrels are limited to the upper Midwest, north and west from central Illinois. They prefer the borders between woodlands and prairies and are about the size of gray squirrels. Both 13-lined and Franklin's ground squirrels bear single litters and are true hibernators, so they spend most of their lives underground.
And you thought squirrels were just those perky little critters seen in city parks.