Wild Thing: Acting Squirrelly
Agile and wily, gray and fox squirrels are familiar neighbors.
By Tucker Slack
Whether they’re considered tasty table fare, barnyard pests or adorably furry woodland creatures, squirrels can be found in every corner of Texas. With their trademark bushy tails and a penchant for tormenting backyard dogs, squirrels are a familiar sight in both urban and rural settings.
With at least eight different species in Texas, a crash course on Texas squirrels is in order. All squirrels are classified as ground squirrels, flying squirrels or tree squirrels. The two most common squirrels found in Texas are tree squirrels: fox squirrels (Sciurus niger) and gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensus), commonly referred to as “cat” squirrels because of their smaller size, nervous disposition and extreme agility. Although these squirrels share many similarities, there are quite a few noteworthy differences.
Fox squirrels occupy larger home ranges in open upland forested sites in the eastern two-thirds of the state. Gray squirrels are confined to smaller home ranges in bottomland forests in the easternmost portion of the state.
Fox squirrels are the larger of the two species, tipping the scales at around two pounds; their smaller cousins top out at around one pound. Aside from this obvious size difference, both are brownish-gray, differing in the color of their underparts. Gray squirrels have white or light gray undersides (hence the name); fox squirrels usually have a more cinnamon or golden-colored underside.
Fox squirrel, above, and gray squirrel, below.
Both nest in trees, but fox squirrels will normally use a hollow in a tree, while grays prefer building a spherical nest of limbs and leaves.
Squirrels breed year-round, although peak breeding times occur in late summer and midwinter. Two to four helpless, naked young are born about six weeks after breeding takes place. Within a year, the young squirrels are ready to begin the cycle again.
Gray squirrels are far more prevalent in East Texas and account for more than three-quarters of the total squirrel population there. They are sociable and likely to be found in groups.
Squirrel stew, fried squirrel and squirrel and dumplings were once common offerings in many rural East Texas kitchens. Squirrel connoisseurs favor the meat of gray squirrels. Although squirrel is not common table fare today, it is still colloquially referred to as “limb chicken.”
One major difference between gray squirrels and fox squirrels is their response to danger. Gray squirrels will respond by running, jumping, climbing — presenting an unparalleled aerialist show without ever looking back. However, fox squirrels prefer to play hide-and-seek as they freeze, shift, bob and weave in order to keep some obstruction between themselves and the threat. These defensive responses, coupled with sound habitat management decisions, should ensure a bright future for Texas squirrels.
See more wildlife articles on TP&W magazine's Wildlife page