By Sara Scudier
Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalist
Squirrels are a diverse group of about 279 species worldwide. The family Sciuridae includes tree squirrels, ground squirrels and flying squirrels.
Tree squirrels have long, bushy tails, sharp claws and large ears. Some have well-developed ear tufts.
From trees to burrows underground, squirrels are found in a vast array of habitats, including rainforests, arid grasslands, arctic tundra, forests, suburban areas and cities.
The gray squirrel is the most frequently seen in our area. Eastern Gray Squirrels can grow 17 to 20 inches long, and have grayish-brown fur, except for their bellies, which have pale fur. The tail often has silvery-tipped hairs at the end.
Some populations of Eastern gray squirrels are completely black. They are common in several areas in Northeast Ohio.
Gray squirrels usually live to be about 5 years old. They survive because of their good vision, smell and hearing. They also have incredible balance, rarely falling from trees, and can run headfirst down a tree trunk. They are also excellent swimmers. But their greatest tool may be their tail, which they use for balance, shade from the sun, as an umbrella, a blanket and a rudder when swimming.
Grays breed when they are 1 year old, in mid-December or early January and again in June. During the breeding season, noisy mating chases take place when one or more males pursue a female through the trees. They nest in tree cavities, human-made squirrel boxes or leaf nests.
Squirrels are a food source for hawks, owls, snakes and several mammalian predators. They eat a large variety of nuts and seeds, apples, mushrooms, tree bark, grapes, grass, insects, baby birds, bird eggs and amphibians. Sometimes they even eat each other.
People have a love/hate relationship with gray squirrels. They are the second-most fed and watched animals, after birds. They help control plant populations by eating many seeds and fruits and insect populations as well. But they annoy people by taking over birdfeeders, nesting in attics, ruining garden vegetables such as cucumbers, eggplants and pumpkins, and “transplanting” flower bulbs to new locations. If a flower pops up in the middle of your lawn or other strange place, it was probably moved by a squirrel. Squirrels often will bury their food at a new spot, near the surface of the ground. In winter, when food is scarce, they will use their sense of smell to relocate their “secret” food. They don’t always find all of their stash, so they help “plant” new trees and plants, letting them grow in new places.
To read more about them, hear their sounds and see their tracks, visit: go.osu.edu/greysquirrel.