Gray squirrels are familiar to everyone because they are so common, even in cities. Their aerobatics and speed are second to none, making them popular to hunters and animal watchers alike.
Cute though they are, the gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) is a member of the rodent family (scientific name). The big bushy tail gets them past the negative stereotype, which is gray along with the rest of the body except the white belly has gray fur on its back a white belly. Squirrels weigh in at around 1½ pounds.
Preferred squirrel habitat is a mature mixed hardwood forest. Each squirrel has a fixed home range that consists of several wooded acres. These ranges often overlap each other, creating a social group where each squirrel knows its neighbor by sight, smell and possibly sound. Within this social group there is a definite pecking order, with older squirrels dominating younger ones, and males dominating females.
The speed at which a gray squirrel can move among the treetops is impressive. A secret to this ability is that they often use the same route through the branches, creating familiar aerial highways. The main activity that keeps them running is food gathering, which varies with the seasons. In the spring, squirrels eat the swollen buds of many trees. They also eat the inner bark from maples, basswood and elm. In late spring, they may feed on young birds and eggs if they can get at them. During the summer tree flowers and fruits such as cherries and mulberries are consumed. Insects are readily available and beetles or caterpillars are often choice foods. In late summer they feed on field corn and several varieties of mushrooms. In the fall favored foods include apples and their seed, as well as the seed in pinecones.
Storing and eating nuts is what squirrels are most known for. Local nut producing trees include oak, hickory, walnut and beech. This “hard mast” food is the key to the squirrel’s winter survival. During the fall they eat all the nutmeat they can hold and store large quantities of them underground, usually somewhere near the providing tree. Wildlife geeks call hiding food away “caching”, and squirrels are pretty efficient at it, being able to store up to 50 nuts per hour. The husk of larger nuts is often discarded burial. When a squirrel wants a winter meal, it goes to the general area where the nuts were buried and locates one by smelling either the nut or a scent left on the spot. Unfound nuts will often germinate and attempt to grow a new tree, making squirrels unwitting foresters. They are why oaks and hickories, whose nuts are round and normally roll downhill, can be found on ridge tops.
Steve Roark is the area forester in Tazewell, Tennessee, for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.