They have chisel-like front teeth, powerful legs, flexible ankle joints, furry paws, sharp claws, keen eyesight, sensitive whiskers, and they always have a multi-function colorful blanket at the ready. Their menu varies with the seasons, and December is their season for feasting on high-energy nuts and frosty tree fruits, and, of course, the seeds at your bird feeder. As I write these words, I’m watching one gnawing away at a black walnut from the security of a tree limb barely twenty feet from my door on the 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.
Fox squirrel dining on a black walnut in a snow storm in Brandon Township.)
The vernal equinox is one month away. More likely than not winter’s powerful punch will persist past that date of official transition for nature’s seasons do not always follow the calendar. The duel between seasons may be long lasting and rough. And for many creatures that means they will continue to wander through winter in an endless quest for food. But not for all. The eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus Niger) takes weather in stride. They are the largest native tree squirrel found in North America and a common squirrel of urban wilds. And as challenging as winter may be for humans and other wildlife fox squirrels do more than survive – they thrive. The fox squirrel is highly adaptable to varying conditions and not the least bit shy in taking advantage of opportunity. Much of that opportunity exists because of the large human population of Oakland County and the way we behave and alter habitat.
An obese dumpster diving fox squirrel in the parking lot of St John- Oakland Hospital in Madison Heights.
Unlike the more reclusive gray squirrel that breeds in forested habitat and is well established in the larger parks and wildlands of Oakland County, the fox squirrel prefers life in our neighborhoods. Bird feeders provided a significant amount of food during winter and half a dozen fox squirrels at a feeder at once is not an unusual occurrence. Whether squirrels “tell” each other where free handouts are available or bird feeding frenzies draw their attention might never be known. But even without feeders these excellent clawed climbers with long tails that double as blankets during blizzards find our landscaping practices to their liking. Abundant ornamental berries that persist through the winter are a major source of food. And what better meal on a sparkling sunny day of winter than hawthorn berries in front of the park office.
An opportunist fox squirrel feasting near the front door of Oakland County Parks Administration office in Waterford Township.