By early fall, the walnut trees at the edge of our yard are so laden with fruit, I can barely pass under the drooping branches with my riding mower. The pungent, green walnuts are irresistible to fox squirrels from the surrounding woods, and I take great enjoyment in photographing the bushy-tailed visitors as they collect and store the tasty treasures.
The eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), which can weigh up to 3 pounds, is larger than its close relative the gray squirrel, and it is easily recognized by its fox-like coat of red and gray. The fox squirrel is found statewide, but is more common in the northern half of the state where it prefers timbered fencerows, woodlots, and timbered draws. Our farm in Franklin County, with its fencerows of elm, hickory, and walnut, has always been a haven for fox squirrels.
Fox squirrels build leafy nests in tree forks and cavities, and they breed in December and again in June. Young squirrels make their first appearance after six or seven weeks in the nest. I’m always on the lookout, camera in hand, for juvenile squirrels as they poke their heads out of tree cavities for their first look at the world.
Fox squirrels eat a great variety of foods, but the buds and fruits of hickory, pecan, walnut, elm, and mulberry trees are their staples. During spring, I enjoy watching fox squirrels gorge on mulberries from the tree next to our driveway, occasionally glancing up to reveal purple-stained goatees. When the mulberries are gone, a few individuals return to purloin selected items from our garden. By late summer, most of the fox squirrels retreat to the woods to feed on hickory nuts, followed by oak acorns in early fall. Eventually, the more resourceful ones return to our yard for a walnut harvest — squirrel style.
If you’ve never watched a fox squirrel shuck a walnut, you’ve missed out. First, it selects the perfect walnut, rolling it around in its paws, and sniffing, I presume, for proper ripeness. Next it finds its favorite perch and begins gnawing away the green husk as it rolls the huge fruit between its incisors. The process is completed in about 10 seconds, leaving the proud squirrel with the dark brown walnut in its furry red paws.
The final step involves storing the nut for future use in winter, when pickings are scarce. Some fox squirrels repeatedly follow an established route back to the woods where they cache their prizes in a favorite hide. Others simply bury their walnuts all over the yard in what appear to be random locations. Every once in a while, an individual will take a snack break from its winter preparation and gnaw a walnut down to the sweet, edible kernel within.
Photographing fox squirrels during the walnut harvest is easy, because, like many other animals, squirrels are creatures of habit. Typically, I just deploy my pop-up hunting blind near a preferred “shucking perch,” such as the tree stump in the photograph, and wait for the action to begin. Most of the time, the busy bushy-tails don’t even know I’m there. —Story and photograph by Danny Brown
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