Fox Squirrel Dossier

by Carl Strang

This week’s species dossier is one of my larger ones.

Fox Squirrel

Fox squirrels are distinguished from our other common tree squirrel, the gray squirrel, by the reddish tones in the tail and belly.

This is a squirrel of woodlands and residential areas with trees. The fox squirrel is the only large tree squirrel of the Culver, Indiana, area. They nest in tree cavities or in leaf nests; some used leaf nests all winter at Willowbrook Forest Preserve, Illinois. Nest building involves cutting of leafy branch-ends. A leaf nest in cross section is made of those leafy twigs, woven into a framework of thicker sticks, with a fresh leafy lining. Overall it has a very thick wall with small insulated cavity within.

Squirrel nests are approximately the diameter of a basketball.

Fox squirrels feed on the ground and in trees. They begin to eat acorns and hickory nuts in August when those still are green. Hickory nuts and acorns are consumed in treetops, especially early in morning and late in afternoon, resulting in a distinctive rain of fragments as hulls are gnawed away. Squirrels (gray squirrels?) also ate black gum fruits in Pennsylvania on Reineman Sanctuary in late fall. Generally they open large nuts (hickory, walnuts) neatly, prying them open on the seams.

Fox squirrel with a pair of shagbark hickory nuts.

They also bury individual acorns, nuts, black cherry pits, etc., in the fall. Distinctive burying site goes into earth at a 45 degree angle or a little shallower, producing an oval shaped bare soil excavation site about 1×2 inches (wider than tall) in soft soil, smaller in hard soil. Mushrooms also are on the fall food list near Culver. Diet in early winter emphasizes excavated nuts buried earlier.

Squirrel tracks, right, follow a winding course as the animal sniffed for a buried nut. On the left is the hole where it excavated one.

Twigs and bark, e.g. of elm, eaten occasionally in mid- and late winter. Buds, e.g. of maple, are added as those expand in spring. Developing elm seeds are heavily consumed in May in DuPage County, generally twigs are cut and seeds eaten from them. Occasionally they gnaw bones.

Fox squirrel eating buds in spring.

Fox squirrels have two breeding seasons, typically, in spring and fall, with 2-5 young per litter. Young began to appear at the Willowbrook Wildlife Center hospital in mid-March (born mid-late February) and mid-August (born late July or early August). Young normally begin to emerge from the nest in May or late September. Young play in vigorous chasing and hiding games on tree trunks and in branches, occasionally extended onto the ground. Adults sometimes play as well, also tease dogs. Leap between trees. They use suspended wires as tightropes between trees and over roads.

These could be fox or gray squirrel footprints.

Tree squirrel tracks are distinctive, the 5-toed hind footprints about 1.25 inches long, with 3 parallel middle toes close together, pointing forward, and outer toes pointing out at angles. The 4-toed front footprints show more spread and independence of toes. The traveling gait typically is a gallop, with front feet leaving ground before back feet land. The back feet are side by side, as are the front feet. Slowing down causes front feet to get closer and closer to back footprints, until one or both front footprints are in front of the back feet. Acceleration also begins with a set of footprints showing the bound gait. Squirrels sniffing slowly over the ground sometimes use the diagonal walk. Fox squirrels show considerable ingenuity and acrobatic ability in overcoming bird feeder protections.

Early spring 1986, Taft Campus of Northern Illinois University, north central IL, with snow still on ground. A fox squirrel, opportunistically foraging in a temporary meltwater stream, looked much healthier than the many gray squirrels fastidiously foraging on the wet-snow-covered hillside nearby.

24NO86. Squirrel began to go onto a branch with 2 great horned owls. The squirrel stopped, tail twitching, sat still for a while, then backed and started to go on a branch over the owls’ heads. They were watching it. Finally it turned around and ran down the tree.

12DE86. Puffer Lake, Morton Arboretum, IL. Fox or gray squirrel tracks in snow that fell yesterday afternoon, on ice among cattails at edge of lake. The tracks were made early this morning. Diagonal walk first 7 feet onto ice, then slow gallop gait.

Fox squirrel, winter.

14MR87. Fox squirrel eating cherry and elm buds at Maple Grove Forest Preserve.

30AP87. Fox squirrel feeding heavily, frenetically, on large green silver maple fruits (seeds only; dropping wings). Also on 1MY, 8:30 a.m. both days.

4MY87. Squirrel-cut elm twigs with fragments of seeds on ground.

6MY87. Early evening, a fox squirrel feeding in an elm top at Willowbrook. Mostly clipped twigs first, then stripped them of seeds, and finally dropped them. The squirrel removed more foliage in 3 minutes than a noctuid caterpillar would in its entire life.

18DE87. 4 days after an abrupt 1-foot snowfall, little but rabbit and squirrel tracks can be seen in the Willowbrook Back 40. The latter are relatively few, restricted to woods.

25MY88. A squirrel when being stealthy carries his tail behind him like the cloak on a figure in an old novel.

This one looks pregnant.

29MY88. Fox squirrel numbers at Hartz Lake (in Indiana) appear limited by hickories. The few squirrels I’ve seen to date have been in parts of woods where hickories are (may simply be a preference, if hunters are keeping numbers low).

20SE88. A fox squirrel nest came into Willowbrook from Lombard with 3 young. The nest was made of leafy elm twigs, with grasses and a work glove toward the center. Overall shape was like an urn, with branches interwoven to nearly cover the entrance. Couldn’t tell for sure whether the entrance was on top or side. Nest blown out of tree by storm.

27JL89. Fox squirrel still feeding heavily on red half-ripe mulberries at Willowbrook after purple ripe ones have been available more than 1 month.

10MR90. Warrenville Grove Forest Preserve. Fox squirrel lunges up tree when climbing, pushing with all four feet at once. Toes catch in cracks, don’t appear to slip although a slight adjustment with a foot may be made now and then before the next lunge.

24JL90. Fox squirrel still eating mulberries.

15NO90. Willowbrook. A fox squirrel eating catalpa seeds right out of the pod, and letting the wings fall.

13JA92. Fox squirrel eating box elder buds, Willowbrook.

22AP95. Midafternoon, Warrenville Grove Forest Preserve. 2 fox squirrels feeding heavily on American elm buds in a 6″dbh tree.

13OC96. 3 fox squirrels in full bark, simultaneously, in Mom and Dad’s Culver front yard. A large cat was their target. They were turned so their bodies pointed in its direction and they were focused, looking straight at the cat.

Not a hibernator, the fox squirrel remains active all winter.

19FE99. Fox squirrel eating expanding silver maple buds, Willowbrook.

4MR99. At mid-day a gray squirrel emerged from a hole in a large, dead willow at Willowbrook to drive away an approaching fox squirrel. The gray immediately returned to the hole.

20AP99. Fox squirrel feeding on buds or expanding leaves of a black cherry tree with leaves much more expanded than those of other cherries at Willowbrook.

28AP99. Willowbrook. Fox squirrel eating silver maple seeds.

13OC99. Willowbrook. Young fox squirrel out of nest. Another fox squirrel eating box elder seeds.

21OC99. Willowbrook. Several fox squirrels gathering walnuts.

Synchronized acorn-eating team, Mayslake savanna.

27OC99. Fox and gray squirrels both are active. The former have been eating nuts in recent days, one this morning in a box elder eating seeds, another appearing to work on a broken down old nest.

28OC99. Gray squirrel with nut, fox squirrel eating box elder seeds.

1NO99. Willowbrook again. Fox squirrel eating box elder seeds.

17NO99. A gray squirrel (young) and a fox squirrel both eating box elder seeds at Willowbrook.

2DE99. Several gray squirrels and 1 fox squirrel foraging on the ground.

30DE99. Fox squirrel at Willowbrook building leaf nest 15 feet up in a buckthorn in a tall-brush area. Taking leaves from nearby small oak that had not dropped many of them.

2FE00. A fox squirrel carried a ball of snow up onto a branch and ate from it.

14FE00. Many gray and fox squirrels this winter in nests only 12‑14 inches outer diameter at Willowbrook.

25FE00. Willowbrook, afternoon. 2 fox squirrels eating buds from a mulberry tree rich in witches’ brooms. Temperature 70F.

2MR00. Willowbrook. 2 fox squirrels sharing a hole in the trunk of a large willow, 1 of them adding leaves picked up from the ground.

Grooming the fur.

4MR00. A gray and 2 fox squirrels feeding on the expanding buds of an American elm near the Joy Path of Morton Arboretum. As I left the path to approach the tree to identify it, the gray squirrel immediately left and ran to other trees. As I walked up to the trunk, the lower of the fox squirrels finally left, but the higher one remained.

15MR00. Willowbrook. Fox squirrel nest high in the very top of a red oak across the exhibit trail from the eagle cage (occupant barked at another fox squirrel lower in tree). A fox squirrel eating expanding sugar maple buds.

13AP00. A fox squirrel feeding on expanding sugar maple buds, Willowbrook.

19AP00. Willowbrook. 2 fox squirrels eating expanding sugar maple buds.

7MY00. West DuPage Woods F.P. 2 fox squirrels clipping American elm twig ends and eating the nearly ripened seeds, then dropping the twigs with leaves.

1JA02. A fox squirrel at the Arboretum eating honey locust seeds from a thornless tree on a very cold day. Sometimes it ate individual seeds from the pod attached to the tree, sometimes removed entire pods and took the seeds from them.

This fox squirrel was mobbed by a pair of Baltimore Orioles in June of 2009 until it left their nest tree.

5OC10. Mayslake. A fox squirrel chased a gray squirrel on the ground in the south savanna.

27JA11. Mayslake. Fox squirrels feeding in thornless honey locust in south (former) friary grounds, presumably getting seeds from pods.

1DE11. Fox squirrel eating honey locust seeds from pod on ground.

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