Outdoor Encounters

By Nathan Bolls on December 7, 2017

I’m going to speak of a magnificent animal—also one of God’s creatures—that is a source of disdain for many of you: the eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger).  The genus name, Sciurus, is related to their habit of “sitting in the shade of their tail” while resting or sunning on a horizontal limb.  This squirrel ranges widely across the eastern United States, including all of Kansas.  Yes, Meadowlark Hills also is blessed.  The fox squirrel range touches western New England and extends somewhat beyond the 100th meridian in our West.  Thus, these squirrels grace many woods, lawns, golf courses, cornfields, and birdfeeders as they go about the work of nesting, reproducing, and foraging.  They are very good at doing “what comes naturally.”  This animal, in season, eats some 30-35 different foods.  In early summer our mulberry trees literally shake from the activity of feeding squirrels.  And they love to bury walnuts, hickory nuts, and acorns for later use, and, in the process, greatly disturb my beds of heirloom irises. 

For a mammal they are incredibly energetic and physical.  Imagine hauling your body weight straight up a tree at squirrel speed!  Imagine having to live down the old woodsmen’s tale that the males fight, and, in the process, castrate each other.  That would not be nice!  It is true that during parts of each year a testicle-filled scrotum is not obvious.  But that is because, during the long break between breeding seasons, the testes are drawn back into the body cavity. 

Fox squirrels have two breeding seasons:  Jan-Feb and May-June.  Long chases occur when males sense a female in estrus, and some observers may mistake this racing through the trees as play. Thus, cold Jan-Feb sees lots of squirrel activity, and it is not play.  In good food years, some females may have two litters.  Females born during the second breeding season usually mate during the second breeding season the following year.  Normal litter size is 2-4, and the youngin’s also are very cute.  Mom usually keeps them in the tree-hole den for 5-6 weeks before allowing them to venture out onto a nearby limb of their arboreal world. 

During the summer, when there usually are more squirrels than the tree nest holes can accommodate, many squirrels build a leaf nest high up in some tree.  Here they can rest and overnight.  These nests are large, roundish, seemly loosely organized clumps of leaves that lack the “flat-top” sense of a bird nest.   As any bird-feeder keeper knows, tree squirrels are masters at the art of making do.  As I once said during an invited talk before an Ohio Audubon club, tree squirrels are neighbors you can count on!