Saturday, October 10, 2009

Red Fox Squirrel

When you mention the word Squirrel it will raise mixed emotions depending upon who you ask. Bird watchers who spend small fortunes on bird seed each year, often find themselves waging war against these little thieves. Bird lovers often have to come up with some pretty ingenious squirrel deterrents. Baffles on poles, coffee cans on wire, greasing poles with oil or even Vasoline. Manufacturers have even gotten on board and created "guaranteed squirrel proof feeders". If you are battling these cute little critters, you are well aware that when it comes to squirrels there are no guarantees. For every puzzle we throw at them, it seems they sit and calculate the situation and in no time they've solved the problem of how to invade that delicious feed. Bird seed laid out in those handy little feeders, is like an all you can eat buffet, and offers too much temptation to a hungry squirrel. While I sympathize with each bird lovers plight, I just can't help but be on the other side of the fence with these little guys. What some people refer to as tree rats, I see as an adorable furry tailed creature that is sure to make you laugh.

Their energy is to be envied, they appear almost spastic as they leap, climb, and crawl from tree to tree with such speed as to sometimes disappear before your very eyes. Have you ever cornered one on the trunk of a tree? You on one side of the tree, and the squirrel on the other? Then it's around and around the tree we go, sometimes I think they view it as a game, knowing full well you aren't going to catch him, and if you did, you would get a nasty little bite for your trouble. In our area of Missouri there are two species of squirrels that we find, one is the Red Fox Squirrel, the other is a Gray Squirrel. Pictured here is the larger Fox squirrel. As you can see by the dirt smeared all over his face in the first picture he has been busy digging holes and burying nuts. He kept his eyes on me as I watched his antics. He repeated the same action over and, grab a nut, run somewhere else, dig a hole, bury the nut, cover the hole, repeat. Often I am asked "do the squirrels find all the nuts that they bury"? The answer is "no" they do not. They are able to locate seeds buried under the ground by smell, not by memory.  As they roam around during the winter months the powerful smell of buried nuts and seeds will lead them to hidden caches underground. Sometimes they find ones they've previously buried, other times they find ones that another squirrel buried, either way this caching serves them and the environment well. They are guaranteed food when times are lean and food supplies are low, and trees like oaks, hickories, and other nut bearing trees are guaranteed to get their seeds dispersed. Many of these forgotten nuts sprout and grow into young saplings, often not far from the parent tree.

Many years ago I completed training classes that allow me to rehabilitate wild animals in Missouri. To this day one of my favorite animals to rehab are these little tree squirrels. They are very easy to care for and their survival rate is high. I've had them come to me as "pinkie" squirrels, that is to say they are very tiny and hairless, maybe 3 or so days old. When I am able to save them it is a good feeling. At about 13 weeks of age they are released to our timber. For a few days I keep a supply of food out for them and provide them with shelter until they are confident enough to head out on their own. It doesn't take them long to figure out just what they were designed to do and I will see them leaping from tree to tree, and paying no more attention to me than as if they had never seen me before. Just as it should be. Many people have asked me how I can bear to release these animals after giving them months of care. The answer is simple, "they aren't mine to own". They belong in the wild, no wild animal truly enjoys a life of captivity. I would be doing a disservice to any wild animal if I tried to "tame it". If someone wanted to keep one as a pet there are some things you should consider. First of all is it legal, many states forbid the capture and containment of wild animals. Missouri is one such state that frowns on this. In certain situations permission can be granted, but you better have a good reason for keeping the animal, you better have permission from the proper authorities and you better be prepared for the care involved. If caught with a wild animal in your possession you can face fines, and time in a courtroom. Caring for these animals is no small feat. Large caging with plenty of room to climb and roam is needed. Fresh food and water is essential on a daily basis. If you let them run your house, be prepared to be a substitute tree. They will leap from any vantage point right on top your shoulders, or your head. Trust me this can take you by surprise, and those claws are sharp! As fast as they land on your head, they will in turn use your head as a spring board launching them somewhere else, once again digging their claws into you. My arms have had scratches on them to the point of being raw from their constant climbing. They are charming, spritely, hilarious and equally energetic, skittish and easily frightened. Their pulse races and they are constantly on guard. It is this timid, untrusting nature that keeps them alive in the wild.

The Red Fox Squirrel is the biggest squirrel in the North America and reach lengths up to 2 feet with the tail. They are found throughout the Eastern Portion of the United States, and have become very plentiful in urban areas. They are rusty orange all over with grayish colored tips on their hair. Sometimes this can give them a Old gray haired look. This long bushy tail serves many purposes. One is to aid them with balance as they tight-rope walk across power lines, or clothes lines. Another function of this gorgeous tail is to provide warmth, they will pull that tail up over their back to help shield the fury of winter winds(picture 3), or curl it around themselves as they sleep in their dens or nests. 
In captivity they are capable of living up to 15 years, in the wild they rarely make it beyond one year. They are an important part of the food chain and provide much needed nutrition for hawks, coyotes, fox, bobcat, owls, and various other meat eating predators. Only on vary rare occasions do they contract rabies, they would most likely not survive an attack by a rabid predator. If they did survive the initial attack it would still be very hard for a squirrel to pass this deadly virus along to other animals including humans. The squirrels teeth have a half inch gap between the front incisors and the back cheek teeth, this gap does not allow for the flow of saliva. It is this saliva that is the mode of transportation to the virus.
Whether you love them or hate them, they should be admired for their tenacity, energy and the great service they provide in helping plant trees, and for the sacrifice many make by playing their part in the food chain. If you just can't beat them at the "bird feeder game", try placing some corn, or sunflowers out for them away from the feeders to see if this will distract them, and help keep them away from your bird feeders. After all, sometimes there is truth to the saying "if you can't beat them, join them"


  1. Nice look at these little guys. I always wondered what keeping one would be like. They're abundant this year in our area with all the nuts, and busy, busy, busy. Makes me wonder about the coming winter...

  2. Thank you Beau, they are such charming little critters, I can't help but love them. I've seen an increase in them as well, and they do seem much busier this year. From everything that I've been hearing it is predicted that all the moisture we had during the spring, summer and now fall is supposed to hang around for a nice wet cold winter. Complete with ice and snow. Should be interesting if this turns out to be true!

  3. Your terminolgy is incorrect. There is no such thing as a Red Fox Squirrel. They are Eastern Fox Squirrels and subspecies thereof. You might want to correct your wording.

  4. Dear anonymous---I am sorry if my wording offended you in anyway. I grew up calling these little squirrels "red fox squirrels" while that may not be the "CORRECT" terminolgy (your spelling, not mine) as you put it, it's not exactly incorrect either. They are fox squirrels, and they are most definitely red. Depending upon where you grow up they go by many names including red squirrel, fox squirrel, tree squirrel, red fox squirrel and yes Eastern fox squirrel. So while you are technically correct, I fail to see how calling them Red Fox Squirrels is such a bad thing. In fact do a search on the web for Red Fox Squirrel and see how many examples come up. It is for this reason that we have taxonomy specialist that give each species it's very own species or sub-species name. As common names vary from area to area. Take for example cicadas, in our area people call them locusts. Locusts are type of migrating grasshopper, so their terminology is incorrect, but when you hear someone refer to them as a locust you know exactly what they speak of. If the only thing you got from the post that I wrote was that I called them by their "wrong name" then I have failed miserably in delivering a fun, interesting and somewhat educational post, and for that I apologize.

  5. I'm from Kansas and went camping, hiking and rafting in Alton Missouri for 3 days and did not see a single squirrel in the woods anywhere. The other family of 4 also noticed and we all talked about how strange it was not to see a single one the whole weekend. So whats up Missouri where did all your squirrels go?

  6. I can only hope that they were all dispatched post haste as they are a menace to my planters, feeders, cedar play structure, benches, dog house, garden beds, fencing and my car! They chew on EVERYTHING & store nuts in every possible location. I was driving in my car wondering who could possibly be roasting so many nuts that I could smell it going down the road when I discover it's me because they had a huge cache under the hood of my car stuffed up in the insulation! Some my think they are cute or adorable, but I do not. My 3 dogs (rat terriers) work hard to keep them out of the yard & a small trap gets them from my deck. We live down by Truman lake so that's where my husband takes them for release. I don't get pleasure from it when my dogs do catch one, but they sure run their butts off trying! Anyone is welcome to all the tree rats in my yard!

  7. These beautiful red fox squirrels live in my Osage trees here in Kansas. They are really fast scurrying from one tall branch to another. I go out early in the morning to watch the birds and these acrobats. They can be destructive and last year decided that they needed my outdoor furniture cushions for their nests and wrecked havoc destroying them.

  8. I loved your article! I have a screened porch and deck in the back of my house and my cat and I enjoy hours of amusement watching these little fellows! I like drawing nature and the squirrel was one of my first things to draw. I studied it for several months and finally came up with a drawing that is going to be used as coloring sheets for kids at a local art show! :)) I also studied acorns and drew them so I could out them and a couple of fall leaves on the page with my cute little squirrel. One of God's little gifts to us!

  9. MoBugs, I pray this message gets to you asap? Where is a squirrel sanctuary close to Appleton City, MO? Am in desperate help for a squirrel here :-( tiffanyr84 @ gmail dot com

    1. The closest one I can think of to you is Lakeside Nature Center in KC, near the Kansas City Zoo. They do all sorts of rehabilitation. They are about 1 hr. and 20 minutes from you.