Here’s an unusual photo by Dave Bonta:
It’s unusual because Flying Squirrels are generally nocturnal… in fact they are the only nocturnal squirrel here in Western New York.
The ranges of two species of Flying Squirrel overlap in the northeast USA. The Northern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomus sabrinus) is slightly larger than the Southern Flying Squirrel (G. volans). If you sandwich the Eastern Chipmunk between them, you have our 3 smallest squirrels in order of size with the Southern Flying Squirrel being the smallest.
Both species are omnivorous. Both will build twig-leaf nests, though they prefer tree cavities. Neither hibernates, and neither truly flies. Glides are achieved through the aid of the patagium, a fold of skin that stretches from wrist to ankle and is supported by a bit of cartiledge that extends the skin slightly beyond the foot. This skin essentially turns the squirrel into a kite that can glide great distances compared to its body size. The average glide of a Northern Squirrel is 66 feet, and that of the Southern 20-30 feet.
Based on where Dave lives and the apparent size of the squirrel in his picture above, I would guess it is the southern species, though I can’t be sure. Here’s one from Sue in northern Ontario that I would guess is the northern species:
If we could tickle their bellies, we would find the hairs on the Southern to be all white, while those on the northern are darker at the base and light at the tips.
Total Length: 10-12 inches
Tail Length: 4-6 inches
Weight: 2.5-4.5 ounces
Average Lifespan: 3-4 years
Total Length: 9-10 inches
Tail Length: 3-4.5 inches
Weight: 2-3 ounces
Average Lifespan: 5 years
That’s the end of my squirrel series… Hope you enjoyed it! Should I give you a quiz now?
Fox Squirrels are really pretty and a little bigger than Gray Squirrels. They also like deciduous trees, but prefer areas where there is more open space beneath them.
Curiously, the Eastern Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) does not range much into Canada. Kurta says that there is a small, introduced populuation on Pelee Island in Lake Erie, and another small population in southern Manitoba.
Total Length: 20-23 inches
Tail Length: 9-10 inches
Weight: 25-39 ounces
Average Lifespan: 1-2 years
Fox squirrels eat the buds, flowers and fruits of maple, elm, willow and other trees, berries, grapes and cherries, and the occasional grub, caterpillar, egg, or young bird.
Like the Gray Squirrel, Fox Squirrels scatter hoard nuts in preparation for winter. Whereas the Grays retrieve up to 85% of the stored nuts, Fox Squirrels are reported to retrieve 99% of their winter cache.
While Red Squirrels prefer conifers, the Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) prefers mature deciduous trees that produce a good food crop… Hickory, walnut, maple or beech. Being rather adaptable, Eastern Grays can be happy out in the woods, or in your backyard, provided these trees are abundant enough.
Total Length: 17-20 inches
Tail Length: 7-10 inches
Weight: 12-25 ounces
Average Lifespan: 2 years or less
Like chipmunks and red squirrels, Gray Squirrels cache food for winter. Unlike the smaller squirrels, however, Grays bury nuts singly, scattered. In addition to nuts, they will eat mushrooms, insects, seeds, buds, flowers, and fruits.
They rarely travel more than 300 yards from their nest tree which is preferably a 12-inch deep cavity in the trunk, especially for winter shelter and for raising babies. If no cavities are available, a loose nest may be built on a sturdy branch from twigs still bearing leaves.
A totally black melanistic phase of the Eastern Gray Squirrel is not uncommon. Though it is the same species, many folks refer to it as Black Squirrel.
While Red Squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) can be found in purely deciduous woods, they prefer coniferous forests – or at least a hardwood forest with some conifers because their favorite food is seeds extracted from pine cones. In fact, they have a curious habit of going to the same eating perch repeatedly to rip scale after scale from cones to get at the seeds. If you ever see a pile of pinecone scales in the woods, you can bet Red Squirrels have been eating there. Poke around in the pile and you will also find the “cores” of pinecones – stripped bare of all scales. It reminds me of corn cobs after a summer picnic!
Total Length: 11-14 inches
Tail Length: 4-6 inches
Weight: 5-9 ounces
Average Lifespan: 2-3 years
Red Squirrels also eats buds, seeds, fruits, and mushrooms. They seem to have a sweet tooth, as they will bite through the bark of a maple tree in spring allowing the sap to run. As it trickles down the tree, water evaporates from the sap leaving a sticky, sweet treat, which Red comes back for in a few days. In addition to these plant sources, Red Squirrels also eat insects, birds, mice, voles, and young rabbits.
If you enter Red Squirrel territory, you are apt to be scolded with a loud continuous chick-chick-chick. (I remember getting a serious scolding once while setting up my tent near an Eastern Hemlock tree… Eventually he decided to allow my presence, but it was clear he didn’t like it!)
Red Squirrels prefer to nest in a tree cavity, but if none can be found, they will weave a basketball-sized nest in the branches of trees from leaves and twigs. Occasionally, they will nest on or underground, especially in winter.
Two cool vocabulary words related to Red Squirrels:
- Midden – the pile of “trash” (pinecone scales and cores) left behind from eating pinecone seeds.
- Cache – the pile of stored food Red Squirrels stash just before winter – sometimes at the base of a tree, sometimes underground.
I love watching chipmunks… I know that their behaviours are most likely all related to survival… but sometimes they just seem so playful. And how can this – one of our smallest squirrels – be so loud in the woods? When they rustle through dry leaves you would swear a much larger animal is nearby.
The first time someone told me that the fun cluck-cluck-cluck sound I heard in the woods – a sort of a cross between a chirp and a chuck – was from a chipmunk, I simply did not believe him. But one day, I watched a little chippie making that sound. (You can hear it by clicking here.)
Total Length: 9-10.5 inches
Tail Length: 2.5-4 inches
Weight: 2-4 ounces
Average Lifespan: less than 2 years
Eastern Chipmunks (Tamius striatus) are omnivorous supplementing their diet of nuts and seeds with earthworms, slugs, insects, bird eggs, and baby birds. Unable to lay down fat stores in the body like a true hibernator, chipmunks store dried foods in underground homes for consumption in winter. The pouches in in a chipmunk’s cheeks can expand to the size of its head and hold hundreds of seeds.
Chipmunks enter temporary states of torpor throughout the winter, but they can be seen on mild winter days foraging for food in the woods or at your birdfeeder.
Here’s a good link, geared at kids:
OK, I’ll admit it. I was pretty surprised to learn that groundhogs are squirrels. Somehow, this chunky fellow who spends most of his time on or under the ground is just so different from the arborial squirrels that it would never occur to me to put them in the same family… Still… they do have that post-orbital process… so go figure!
Of all our western New York squirrels, this one is largest and has the most names. Groundhog and Woodchuck, of course. The Latin name Marmota momax undoubtedly led to the common name Marmot, and its tendency to make a shrill whistling sound when it is startled led to Whistling Pig.
Total Length: 21-26 inches
Tail Length: 4-6 inches
Weight: 5-11 pounds
Average Lifespan: 2.5-3 years
Groundhogs are true hibernators and “sleep” in underground tunnels from October through March or April. (Yeah, and they don’t come out on February 2nd, either…) When they emerge, they eat bark, buds, and twigs until their preferred food of grasses and herbaceous plants are plentiful. Farmers and gardeners know that they are pretty fond of food crops, too. And as you can see from Ruth‘s photo at right, Groundhogs CAN climb trees!