The eastern gray squirrel and eastern fox squirrel are the most common members of the squirrel family in Missouri. The names aptly describe their general coat color: the first is usually gray, the other is usually reddish yellow.
The eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) is slender and smaller than the fox squirrel; the fringe of the tail and belly are white; the back and sides of the body are gray (rarely reddish or all black); the total length (tip of nose to tip of tail) reaches 21 inches. Sometimes black individuals occur in the same litter with gray ones; these may be entirely glossy black or show various gradations between black and gray. Albino individuals occur occasionally; in some instances where this characteristic is common in the heredity of a local population, small colonies of albinos may be formed.
The eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) is heavy-bodied and larger than the gray squirrel; the fringe of the tail and belly are reddish yellow; the back and sides of the body are reddish yellow mixed with gray (rarely, the body may be all black); the total length (tip of nose to tip of tail) reaches 29 inches. In Missouri, black or albino individuals occur rarely.
Similar species: Other members of the squirrel family (Sciuridae) that live in Missouri are the eastern chipmunk, woodchuck, thirteen-lined ground squirrel, Franklin's ground squirrel, and southern flying squirrel. None of these are likely to be confused with the two tree squirrels described here.
Total length: 14–21 inches (gray), 19–29 inches (fox); weight: ¾–1½ pounds (gray), 1–3 pounds (fox).
Both of these squirrels occur throughout Missouri, but the gray squirrel is more abundant in the Ozark and Mississippi Lowland region, while the fox squirrel is more common in the northern and western plains.
Habitat and Conservation
Gray squirrels are more common in bottomlands and rivers with a bushy understory, and fox squirrels are more common along higher ridges. In the prairie regions of the state, fox squirrels are found along the few remaining Osage orange hedge fences, in farm woodlots, along timbered fence rows, and in timbered draws. Both species also live in urban areas, especially where large oak and hickory trees are common.
A squirrel's home is a leafy nest located in a cavity or fork of a tree. Cavity nests occur most often in older trees, particularly white oaks, sycamores, and soft maples. When trees lose their lower limbs, if the scars don't heal over and instead begin to rot, a cavity can start to form. Insects and woodpeckers may enlarge the cavity, and squirrels gnaw the openings larger and eventually maintain the opening at about 3 inches in diameter by gnawing at the tree's new growth.
Cavities occupied by squirrels are about 6 inches wide, 14 to 16 inches deep, with an opening about 3 inches in diameter. Large cavities are commonly filled with leaves in the fall and again in the spring. The leaves serve as good insulation from the winter's cold and as a warm lining for the young
While leaf nests are usually built in the tops of large trees, they occasionally are located in other places like a grapevine tangle or at the top of an Osage orange hedge fence. On average, they are about 40 feet above the ground, but they may be as low as 10 feet. The leaf nest consists of a rough twig framework, from 12 to 20 inches across, and a bulky pile of leaves heaped layer upon layer. The squirrel hollows out a nest cavity in the center of the leaves.
Summer-built leaf nests are usually of green twigs with green leaves attached and are often flimsily constructed. Winter-built nests are made of bare twigs with separate leaves interlaced in the framework; they are usually very substantial. The inside cavity, about 6 to 8 inches in diameter, is reached through a hole in the side of the nest. The nest lining consists mostly of frayed leaves from the inside of the nest. The nest material is generally from the tree in which the nest is located, but sometimes leaves and twigs of other trees, grass, roots, moss, corn husks, or other items are added.
Leaf nests can be constructed in less than 12 hours; if well made and repaired, they usually last for 6 to 10 months. Some large nests, however, that are added to from time to time, may last 2 to 3 years. Fragile or unused nests are easily destroyed by the wind.
Leaf nests are advantageous as supplementary homes because they can be readily built near a source of food where hollow limbs may not be available. Also, they can be occupied when the home nest becomes badly infested with insect parasites or dirtied with droppings. A squirrel may utilize two or more tree cavities, or a tree cavity and a leaf nest, concurrently.
In some areas, where places for tree cavities are scarce, squirrels may live in leaf nests all year. However, tree cavities are preferred homesites, especially for winter and for nurseries, because they provide better protection from weather and predators.
The foods of squirrels are varied, but of the 100 different species of plants eaten, only a few are important staple sources. These are (1) nuts; (2) fruits and buds of hickory, pecan, walnut, elm, and mulberry trees; and (3) field corn. The importance of acorn and nut crops is shown by the fluctuations in squirrel numbers following years of good or bad mast production. These staple winter foods have an important influence on the physical condition of the females that must produce next year's young.
In gray squirrels, the mating period begins in late December or early January and again from late May to early July. Pregnancy requires about 45 days. Most litters are born in February or March, and July or August. A litter comprises 1–8 young, but 2 or 3 are most common. The young are hairless at birth, have their eyes and ears closed, and possess well-developed claws. They come out of the nest for the first time when 6–7 weeks old, and in another week or so they are weaned.
In fox squirrels, the cycle is similar, but they begin breeding 10 days to 2 weeks earlier than the grays.
From 600,000 to 700,000 squirrels are taken annually in Missouri. Squirrels furnish a large supply of meat each year for Missouri hunters.
Squirrels provide considerable pleasure for city dwellers who observe them around their homes and in parks.
Automobiles kill many squirrels annually.
Economically, squirrels do some harm when they take food from cornfields.
They may girdle ornamental trees, particularly in early spring when they gnaw the inner bark.
Occasionally, they damage the insulation on outdoor electrical wiring and frequently become a nuisance when they gain access to the attics of homes.
Towns that support large populations of white squirrels (albino and/or white-furred variants of the eastern gray squirrel) have an enduring draw for tourism. Marionville, in southwest Missouri, bills itself as "The Home of the White Squirrel." Olney, Illinois, and Kenton, Tennessee, also proudly tout their white squirrel populations and sell souvenirs and tee shirts to tourists. In these towns, residents build squirrel houses, feed the squirrels, plant nut trees, and enact ordinances forbidding the killing of their local mascot animal. In some places, the residents have even captured and relocated normal-colored gray squirrels out of town.
Squirrels' habit of storing nuts in the ground results in the eventual germination of many unrecovered nuts. Thus they essentially "plant" nuts that grow into trees that furnish not only food and shelter for subsequent squirrel populations, but also timber of economic value to humans.
The many predators of squirrels include coyotes, foxes, domestic cats and dogs, bobcats, raccoons, owls, hawks, and tree-climbing snakes.
Signs and Tracks
Eastern Fox Squirrel
- 1½ inches long
- 4 toes.
- 1¼–3¼ inches long (3½ for fox squirrel)
- 5 toes.
- Hopping pattern has front feet behind hind feet, with each cluster of 4 tracks about 4 inches long.
- Distance between bounds is 16 inches (varies with pace; running, it may be 30 inches).
- Gray squirrel tracks are smaller than fox squirrel tracks.
- Squirrel tracks typically lead from tree to tree.
- Squirrels often sit on rocks or logs to eat, leaving behind piles of walnut, hickory, and acorn shells.
- Commonly confused with rabbit tracks.