General: The fox squirrel is the largest of the American tree squirrels. They are “tree squirrels” which means they are associated with other climbing squirrels that spend time and nest in trees. Fox squirrels usually have more than one nest. Their nests can be leaf nests much like those of gray squirrels or they may use hollowed out sections of tree branches or trunks. I have read that they have introduced into certain areas of the western continental USA – if so I would consider them to be an invasive species.
Description: There are three geographical color phases of fox squirrels: in most areas the animals are brown-grey to brown-yellow with the belly pale yellow to orange in color (as the picture of the squirrel standing on its hind legs indicates). The Tufts behind the ears and the tips of its tail are yellowish-brown. The tail itself is a reddish-orange with a mixture of dark gray or black hairs throughout. A second coloration phase in eastern regions such as the Appalachians are more strikingly-patterned dark brown and black with white bands on the face and tail. In the south they can be found in isolated communities with uniform black coats.
These are good sized tree squirrels with body length measuring 18” – 24” and their tail measuring between 8” – 13”, almost ½ of the total length. Average weight for these tree squirrels is between 17oz. – 38 oz. (1 lb. – 2 ¼ lbs.)
Habitat: The primary habitat of the fox squirrel is in woodlot country of agricultural lands, in suburban communities and open forest with clear understories they are not found in stands with dense undergrowth.. As with other squirrels, fox squirrels will be found where timber provides food and broken stands of middle aged and mature trees for dens.
Location: The fox squirrel’s natural range extends throughout the eastern United States, excluding New England, north into the southern prairie provinces of Canada, and west to the Dakotas, Colorado, and Texas.
Diet: Just like other squirrels, fox squirrels eat various types of nuts – hickory, oak, beech, pine, etc. They also eat fruits such as blackberry, dogwood, cherry and grape. They will eat farm produce such as corn, squash (the picture of the fox squirrel standing was taken as it was eating a pumpkin). In spring they will eat buds of maple (as well as the seeds) elm and willow. Fox squirrels are also known to eat insects, young birds as well as the eggs. They will also eat fungi, mushrooms etc. Audubon mentions that fox squirrels actually carry out a beneficial role in forest life by spreading certain fungi spores – for more information go to Audubon.
Reproduction: Female eastern fox squirrels come into estrus in mid-December or early January then again in June. Male fox squirrels initiate the chase of the female that leads to mating. Fox squirrels are polygamous, meaning the male will mate with more than one female and the female may mate with more than one male. Fox squirrels can have 2 litters per year. One litter occurs in late winter/early spring, the second litter in late summer.
Gestation period is approximately 45 days after which 2 – 4 young are born. The young are born with their eyes closed and will not open them for approximately 1 month. They will depend on the female for about seven weeks and become independent after three months. (Audubon)
Notes of Interest:
When nuts are available, squirrels will harvest as many as they can typically burying them in the ground. They will return when hungry and dig them up.
Like gray squirrels, fox squirrels use two types of nests: leaf and den. Leaf nests are constructed from leaves and twigs and are located in the crotches of tree branches. Dens are formed in hollow tree trunks or branches. Nests are used for shelter and rearing young.
Fox squirrels are a prey species for all predators and especially for those that hunt in or on trees.
According to Minnesota DNR, “hunters harvest about 160,000 of these rodents”.
In captivity, eastern fox squirrels have been known to live 18 years.