WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
Squirrel behavior is directly related to our behavior, and that is the key to understanding the antics and behavior of squirrel species that inhabit the woodlands, towns and cities of Oakland County. Here’s a late October primer on three species that do well in our midst. But first, a secret exposed: tree squirrels have ankle joints that allow their feet to rotate 180 degrees. This feature gives them the ability to climb headfirst down window screens and perform masterful leaps to and from branches and bird feeders.
Red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), sometimes confused with chipmunks, are now in their winter preparation mode. Keyed to action not by falling temperature, but by diminishing hours of daylight. The red squirrels are an easily recognizable species with their white bellies, reddish-brown top sides and a white ring around each eye. Like all squirrels, they are master of adaptation when it comes to adjusting their behavior to our shared habitat. Literature tends to confine red squirrels to evergreen trees and makes mention of their basketball size nests created from grasses and vines. With that said, it is obvious to this writer that red squirrels do not read. Although I frequently hear them scolding intruders – including me – from the limbs of white pine and other evergreens, I often watch them entering and exiting cavities in shagbark hickory trees and transporting hickory nuts and black walnuts to their super secure tree trunk home.
Red squirrels are also breaking and entry pros. They are skilled at finding a weak spot under the eaves and setting up housekeeping in attics. Winter increases their visibility and once snow falls, they seem to take pleasure in finding a perch to scan the horizon before scurrying across an open field to their interior tree home, or underground food cache.
Gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are the undisputed tree-top master of hardwood forests, especially in unbroken expanses of forest canopy. OAK-land County woodlands provide a near endless supply of acorns for these common squirrels. As their name suggests, they are generally gray, but not all gray squirrels are gray in color. If you see a black squirrel in Oakland County, you are actually seeing an Eastern Gray Squirrel that is melanistic. These squirrels quickly adapt to smaller wooded parks and residential areas where human-created food sources are present. As October fades and humans stock bird feeders, gray squirrels set about a new routine. With reliable, easy-picking food sources, they’re apt to spend more time on the ground scrounging spillage. But their seasonal ground gluttony predictably makes them easy prey for Red-tailed hawks.
Eastern Fox Squirrels (Sciurus niger) are the largest tree squirrels native to North America and share much of the behavior and food preference traits of the gray squirrel. Their name comes from their reddish-orange fur and bushy foxlike tail that can also serve as a portable winter blanket. Once the leaves are down, their large leafy nests wedged between upper branches of hardwood trees are easy to spot. Fox squirrels tend to prefer more open habitat than the gray squirrel and some adapt very well to highly urban areas.
The city of Madison Heights had at least one fox squirrel that dumpster dived daily and begged in the parking lot of St John-Oakland Hospital. It seemed to have developed a preference for crumbs left in donut wrappers. How do I know? I once worked there.
Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.