Eastern Gray Squirrel
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Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)
Squirrel Nest Webcam
The squirrel nest webcam is designed to give a close-up view of the inside of a squirrel nest. This nest is located in a kestrel box mounted some 20 feet up in a silver maple tree in a suburban back yard. The camera is mounted inside a piece of PVC tubing that is fitted into the roof of the Kestrel Box. An array of holes covered with squares of frosted plastic supply diffuse lighting to the interior of the nest. Nearby are a number of mature trees that produce an array of seeds, nuts, acorns, pinecones, and buds that provide food attractive to squirrels. Nearby birdfeeders supply an added attraction. The squirrelcam is now live. Nighttime illumination is provided by several deep red light emitting diodes mounted in the camera housing to one side of the lens.
Update Sept. 8, 2007
Surprise! We again have a live feed of a mother gray squirrel with babies in the nest box. They were not born here, but the mother transferred them (we think) from a nest in a cavity in a nearby ash tree.We did observe the squirrel having a confrontation with a redtail hawk at the ash tree nest, so perhaps she thought that the nest box was more secure and she moved the youngsters when the hawk wasn't looking. This is a relatively late nesting, but it does coincide with a fresh availability of acorns so the mother squirrel should have no problem finding enough food nearby.
Interesting Facts about Grey Squirrels
It is commonly held that rodents are dirty animals that reproduce at a tremendous pace with little parental care. The squirrelcam shows just the opposite is true of gray squirrels. Young squirrels develop relatively slowly for rodents and receive a great deal of care from the mother. The mother changes bedding material and appears to drink and eat the babies´ excretions at times in order to maintain the cleanliness of the nest. The young are groomed repeatedly and nursing is a relaxed affair with the mother often lying on her back for up to an hour to give access to her nipples. The bedding of dry grass is pulled over the young when the mother leaves to feed.
The gray squirrel was abundant in colonial times since the expanse of mature forest had not yet been cleared. The now almost extinct American chestnut tree was likely an important food source for the abundant squirrel population. Early marksmen sought the squirrel as an important source of meat. (Deer in colonial times were less abundant than they are now). Thus the squirrel is credited with improving the colonist’s marksmanship and helping to design the guns that would later defeat the British in the revolutionary war. In parts of rural America and particularly the South, the squirrel is still actively hunted for wild game meat.
The gray squirrel is an important factor in reforestation of desirable tree species. It is common practice for gray squirrels to make caches of nuts and other food item. When food is abundant the squirrel will scamper around pouching as many nuts and seeds in its cheek pouches as possible. It will then hide these edibles in holes dug in the ground or in hollows in trees or simply by poking them in crevasses in tree bark. Thus the squirrel aids in the distribution of valuable nut, pine, and oak trees when these seeds, acorns, and nuts germinate if the squirrel loses track of its stash. Squirrels apparently use a combination of memory and their sense of smell to relocate their hidden larders. A squirrel’s larder can be quite impressive. In the case of these suburban squirrels, a neat stash of well over a bushel of black walnuts was found in a storage space in a nearby garage.
The eastern gray squirrel has been introduced in other parts of the world with mixed results. In Britain, the gray squirrel is considered a pest only slightly less objectionable than the Norway Rat. Gray squirrels in Britain have taken to damaging forest plantations by girdling bark on trees. This together with pushing out the native British red squirrels (not the same as our red squirrels) and causing the usual property damage has made the gray squirrel an unwelcome immigrant. They were first introduced to Britain in 1902. The eastern gray squirrel is also established as introduced populations in South Africa, Ireland, Italy, and parts of Western Canada.
The most prominent feature of the gray squirrel is its bushy tail. I fact, the Latin name of the squirrel ciurus is derived from Greek words meaning shadow and tail. Thus it could be said that the name can be roughly translated as one that sits in the shadow of its tail.
The gray squirrel is the largest of the four common species of tree squirrel found in New York which include the gray squirrel, the red squirrel, the northern flying squirrel and the southern flying squirrel. (It is possible that the larger eastern fox squirrel may be found in a small part of Southwestern New York.) The adult gray squirrel weighs between one and one and a half pounds. Typically the head and body are 8 to 10 inches long and the bushy tail is 7 ¾ - 10 inches long. The most common color is gray although a grizzled appearance with white tipped hairs and sometimes some cinnamon tone is observed. Underparts are gray to buff colored. A grizzled appearance is most pronounced on the tail. Other color variations are locally common. Black squirrels are a melanistic color phase observed in some areas. Pure white squirrels as well as albino squirrels have also been observed. Male and Female squirrels have similar size and coloration. Gray squirrels have a summer and a winter coat meaning that they must molt twice each year. The spring molt begins in March and the autumn molt begins in September. Interestingly, the tail only molts once each year in July.
In the wild, squirrels are extremely lucky to live to an age of 7 or 8. Mortality of the inexperienced young is extremely high as they are hunted by a host of predators. They have been known to reach an age of 20 in captivity.
The tail has important functions for the squirrel. Although not capable of gliding like its cousin, the flying squirrel, the gray will make amazing jumps from tree to tree and the tail acts as a stabilizer. The tail also is used as a signal to other squirrels in the area. Flicks of its tail are punctuated by staccato vocalizations. The tail acts as a blanket that the animal wraps around its body as it sleeps. It can even be sacrificed to escape a predator’s grip. Typically, the sheath of skin and fur will slip off along with some of the caudal vertebrae. The tail is not re-grown as with lizards and amphibians that use a similar escape strategy.
The home range of the Eastern Gray Squirrel includes the area enclosed by a line from the southern parts of the Canadian Prairie Provinces across to Southern Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick, and from Maine to Florida and across to Texas and back north to Canada by way of the prairie states.
The Gray Squirrel is arborial in its lifestyle. It spends most of its life scampering about in trees. It is extremely wary when on the ground and exposed to predators. It is most active during daylight hours. They do not hibernate and can be observed around midday in the winter making forays to locate their stored food caches. Humans and other creatures that might threaten a squirrel are likely to trigger an alarm display that consists of jerky tail movements combined with a rapid series of clucking sounds. If the intruder moves closer, the squirrel will move around the trunk of the tree to keep the tree trunk between it and the threat. Gray squirrels seem to make good neighbors as there is not a lot of serious territorial behavior. Home ranges frequently overlap, with the home ranges of males larger than those of the females. In the winter, several squirrels may share a tree den. Disputes are generally settled by aggressive tail twitching chattering and bluff charges or chases.
Gray squirrels use three different types of nest. Summer Dreys and Winter Dreys are conspicuous constructions of leaves and twigs mounted high in treetops. Winter Dreys are made in layers. The outer layer consists of interwoven twigs while an inner layer is built up with softer materials consisting of bark, leaves, moss, fur, grass, and “found” materials. They are resistant to winter winds and provide protection where den sites may be in short supply. Summer Dreys are less elaborate and provide minimal protection from the elements. They are less likely to be used for litters. Tree dens in hollow trees are the preferred nest sites for raising young.
The gray squirrel has two breeding cycles per year. The first breeding takes place in December thru February with the second cycle occurring from May to July. Since gestation takes from 40 to 44 days, this means that young are born in the early spring or summer to fall. Summer or fall litters tend to be larger due to the better overall condition and food availability to the mother. Litter size varies from 2 to 8 with 3 or 4 being the norm. Newborn gray squirrels are naked and helpless and weigh only about 6 tenths of an ounce. For the first couple of weeks, they are totally pink with part of the umbilical cord or a naval spot present. At two to three weeks, dark pigmentation begins to show on the top of the head and back. At three to four weeks, the pigmented areas start to show some fur fuzziness and the ears open. At five to six weeks more fur is apparent as is fur on the tail. The eyes begin to open. At this point the tail is completely furred but it is not yet bushy. Weaning begins at about seven weeks and is complete by ten. It takes from 8 to 9 months for the juvenile to achieve full adult size. Females can produce litters as young as 5 ½ months of age. The potential for high recruitment into the population by large litter sizes creates a need for dispersal of the population. Young males are more inclined to leave the mother’s home range than juvenile females. The increased risks encountered in dispersal contribute to higher mortality among juvenile males and an overall adult sex ratio of almost 2 to 1 in favor of females.
Predators, Diseases, and Hazards
The Gray squirrel faces many predators and other hazards which limit its population growth. Mammalian predators include mink, weasel, fox, fisher, lynx, bobcat, coyote and wolf. Young nestling squirrels may be taken by raccoons, snakes, and red squirrels. The gray squirrel is also subject to aerial attack from Goshawks, Red Tailed Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks and Broad Winged Hawks. Great Horned Owls and Barred Owls may take the occasional squirrel that stays out too late. Gray squirrels are also subject to a host of parasites and diseases. Botfly larvae can cause enormous cysts on a squirrel before the larva emerges to pupate and metamorphose into a fly. Mange can leave squirrels with patches of raw furless skin. Ticks, fleas, lice, and worms also afflict gray squirrels. Another peculiar ailment that is found in gray squirrels is squirrel pox or fibromatosis. This disease is caused by a virus and results in multiple large skin tumors which may appear anywhere on the squirrel´s body. Normally, this disease will run its course and the tumors will disappear unless secondary skin infections occur. If the tumors occur around the eyes or mouth, the squirrel may be unable to see or feed and may succumb due to starvation.
Squirrels are high wire athletes, but sometimes they do fall. A greater hazard than falling is crossing roads where squirrels meet their fate in huge numbers. Squirrels are hunted, but they are wily critters that are not easy targets.
Squirrels and People
For many people, the gray squirrel is their closest contact with mammalian wildlife. Gray squirrels have adapted to live in close contact with people wherever there is suitable habitat in the East. They seem to thrive in city neighborhoods and parks as well as suburban areas. Some people derive great pleasure in watching the antics of squirrels as they figure out ways to outwit squirrel proof bird feeders. Others have given up on outwitting the squirrels and simply feed the squirrels directly. Squirrels demonstrate a considerable amount of intelligence for a small animal that is fun to watch. If a mother squirrel perceives a threat to her babies in a nest, she will grab them one by one by the scruff of the neck, and trundle them to a new nest location which may be some distance away. A mother carrying her baby as she scurries along a telephone wire is a memorable sight.