Gray & Fox


Fox (sciurus niger) and gray (sciurus carolinensis) squirrels are both considered tree squirrels, even though fox squirrels spend most of their time on the ground. When the first settlers arrived in Wisconsin, they found a huge population of squirrels, and in fact some communities actually paid bounties for them to save crop damage. During this time there were enormous squirrel migrations, and in 1842, a gray squirrel migration lasted four weeks and involved, according to one observer, nearly half a billion squirrels. As forests were burned or cleared for agriculture, squirrel population quickly declined.

The fox squirrel is the larger of the two species, measuring 20-22 inches in total length, including 8-10 inches of tail, and weighing 24-32 ounces. Grays are 18-21 inches long and weigh 16-28 ounces. There is no real size or color difference between males and females of either species. Gray squirrels, normally gray in color, have some tawny coloration in summer, a white chin, throat and belly, and bushy tails bordered with white-tipped hairs. In some areas, black (melanistic) gray squirrels are common. Fox squirrels appear more grizzled looking, their fur being rusty brown with a pale yellow to orange belly and tawny-tipped hairs bordering their bushy tails. Tree squirrels, like all rodents, have incisor teeth that continuously grow allowing them to feed on hard nuts and seeds. Squirrels have very keen eyesight, and have adapted well to life among the trees. Special tactile hairs enhance their sense of touch to help them find their way in dark tree holes and cavities. Tracks are normally evenly spaced, and the claw marks are quite visible. The hind feet often strike the ground ahead of or on top of the front footprints, and clusters of tracks can be 10 inches to 5 feet apart depending on the speed of the animal.

Squirrels mate from late January through February and again during a second season in May though early July. The male selects a female, chases her until they mate, and then chooses another. While males may mate with several females, they will vigorously defend these mates against other males. After breeding, the female seeks a nest, which may be the winter den in a tree cavity or hollow log that she has lined with shredded bark and plant fibers. If an existing den is not available, she will build a round leaf nest in the crotch of a tree, at least 25 feet above ground for a gray squirrel and 30 feet up for a fox squirrel. These nests have small hidden entrances on the sides and will be abandoned after one or two years. The young are born after 40-44 days, and litter sizes range from 2-5 for grays and 1-6 for foxes. Young squirrels weigh only 1/2 ounce when born, their skin is without fur and pinkish, and their eyes and ears are closed. Development is slow with eyes not opening for 4-5 weeks and ears taking 6 weeks to open. Hair covering starts at about six weeks, and by two months the little ones are weaned and furry. The first litter stays with the female for about three months or until she has the second litter. The second litter stays throughout the winter. Females normally do not breed the first year, but tree squirrels are sexually mature after 10-11 months.

Squirrels have a great diversity in their diets. Gray squirrels eat many kinds of nuts, acorns, seeds, fruits of plants like maple, elm, hickory, beech, cherry, oak and thornapple. They also feed regularly on fungus, inner tree bark, sap, and occasionally corn, grain and the underground fleshy parts of plants, and have even been known to eat insect pupae and cocoons and to rob bird's nests of eggs and nestlings. Fox squirrels are a little more particular and eat walnuts, hickory nuts, acorns, hazelnuts, fruits, and when nuts are not available, seeds and buds. Fox squirrels seldom bother bird nests. Both species will gnaw on bones to get mineral matter and sharpen their incisors. They bury nuts and acorns in single holes for later meals, but many of these buried treasures are never recovered and end up becoming trees.

Gray squirrels are primarily forest dwellers, preferring mature hardwoods with bushy undergrowth and nearby streams and lakes. They frequently inhabit wooded parks and residential neighborhoods in small woodlots. Fox squirrels are most often found in open agricultural areas with oak and hickory woodlots, often traveling along fencerows, and hardly ever in city parks. Both species seem to stay close to home. The gray squirrel normally stays within 1,000 feet, and many times less than 400-500 feet, of its nest. Home ranges for fox squirrels are typically less than 40 acres and often around 10 acres. Tree squirrels nest in either hollow tree dens or leaf nests, with grays preferring hollow tree dens in the winter and leaf nests at other times, and foxes always opting for leaf nests even while tree dens are abundant. Squirrels are considered diurnal (daytime) animals, most active during the day with peak activity in late afternoon and early evening. Fox squirrels are the most strictly diurnal with very little activity before 8 a.m. or after 5 p.m. Both species are most active in the fall storing nuts, and sometimes it is at this time that young born in the spring will disperse to live in other areas. Squirrels remain active all winter, but they tend to stay in their dens during cold or stormy weather. They are territorial only during reproduction, when pregnant or nursing females will drive off other squirrels that intrude on the nesting or den tree. Squirrels will often times be very vocal to any intruder, making a loud series of short barks to announce their presence. Although over 1,500,000 squirrels are harvested each year, only the fox squirrel seems to be affected by hunting pressure. This is probably because of his strictly diurnal activity, and the fact that he may be more visible and more often hunted. Grays are more affected by natural mortality from predation or disease. Fox, coyote, bobcat, raccoon, hawk, owl and domestic dog and cat all prey on squirrels, and they often fall victim to vehicle accidents, and brush and forest fires. Squirrels are also susceptible to a variety of parasites and diseases such as fleas, lice, squirrel pox, rabies and tularemia. Mange is also prevalent, a disease caused by mites that burrow under the skin causing hair to fall out and eventually death when the animal is left hairless.

It is thought that there are over 8,000,000 squirrels in Wisconsin today. They are found throughout the state and offer both economic and recreational prospects wherever found. Squirrel hunting is very popular in Wisconsin, and it often provides youngsters their first exposure to hunting. Providing healthy stands of nut-bearing trees in woodlots and forests, maintaining windbreaks, hedges and fencerows, and preserving a limited number of dead and hollow trees for dens will insure a good squirrel population.

Squirrel hunting doesn't require a lot of expensive clothing or gear, but a little knowledge and a camouflage hat will get you started just fine. Most state public hunting land will provide a place to start, and then you can narrow down prime hot spots, which are often good year after year. You don't have to enter the squirrel woods in the dark to be under the tree by first light, however the best hunting is generally before noon and in the early evening. One of the best ways to locate squirrels is to go right to their primary food source, acorns, nuts and berries. They will also eat corn, birdseed and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Begin your search looking up in the trees and when you locate white or red oak or hickory nut trees, you have found or will find squirrels there. Try hunting ridge tops overlooking valleys and shoot toward food-bearing branches that are now at eye level, and you'll be surprised how many squirrels you will see. Lack of a good camouflage hat will lessen your chances, and a good choice is one that shields your eyes from sunlight and keeps the sun's reflection off your face. You might also consider where the squirrel lives. Look for den trees, hollow trees sufficiently large enough to house male and female and about four young, and also leaf nests. The most common way to hunt squirrels is stalking. Walk slowly ever alert for leaves on the ground rustling, limbs in trees shaking, nut hulls hitting the forest floor, and most importantly squirrel barks. When you see or hear a squirrel, approach as quietly as possible, as many times a squirrel won't run away when scared, but rather hides in the same tree. They often flatten themselves out on limbs and will try to position themselves on the opposite side of the tree from the hunter. You might try going into the woods, finding a likely looking area and then finding a good place to sit, and sooner or later the squirrels may come to you. Try calling squirrels with a squirrel-in-distress whistle, which simulates a young squirrel in trouble and will anger adult animals and cause them to investigate. Blow the whistle, shake a small tree and settle in and wait quietly. Some hunters use treeing dogs, such as Fiests, Mountain Curs, Newfoundlands and Jack-Russel terriers to hunt squirrels very similarly to coon hunting. Once a "bushytail" is down, leave it on the ground and sit quietly, as often within minutes other nearby squirrels will begin chattering and looking for the intruder, and it's possible to take several animals from the same location. The best gun to use will depend on how and where you hunt. If you stalk squirrels, many will be on the run and a shotgun of smaller gauge and tighter choke should do nicely. The sitter or stander may prefer a 22-caliber rifle, and black powder squirrel hunting can offer a real challenge.