Kentucky is home to four different species of squirrels – the Southern Flying Squirrel, Red Squirrel, Eastern Gray Squirrel, and Eastern Fox Squirrel. Flying Squirrels are nocturnal and seldom seen; while one must head east to the Appalachians to see Red Squirrels. However, there is no shortage of Gray and Fox Squirrels in Northern Kentucky. Where there are trees, there are squirrels.
It’s hard not to love – or hate – squirrels. They are adaptable in diet and habitat if there are trees. Trees are their highway system, often using the same tree branches (or power lines) on identical routes. They prefer oak-hickory forests with plenty of mast for food, however backyard bird feeders will do just fine.
Foxys and grays are scatter-hoarders, meaning that they’ll scatter, bury and hoard food for later recovery. Several thousand caches of food can be “squirreled away” each season. They relocate these caches by memory and smell. Usually, not all of the food they hoard is recovered and eaten, hence that oak or maple tree, or even corn or sunflower plants sprouting on your property. They do us a real service by reforesting our woodlands.
Gray and Fox Squirrels nest in tree cavities or build nests in the forks of trees called “dreys.” During the winter they prefer to den and raise their young in tree hollows which they line with leaves and other plant material for insulation.
They have two mating seasons, late winter and again in late summer. Nests usually contain two to six youngsters.
Many predators, including humans, find Fox and Gray Squirrels to be quite tasty. Squirrel is a favorite food of Red-tail Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, Black Rat Snakes, Great Horned Owls, Barred Owls, Gray Fox and Red Fox. Average life spans are about three years in the wild, but it’s not uncommon for some to live up to eight years or longer.
While Gray and Fox Squirrels share many traits, they also have some distinct differences. Fox Squirrels are the largest tree squirrels native to North America with a grizzled black-brown-orange coloration. Grays are much more, well, squirrelly than the calmer foxys. Gray Squirrels are common in our neighborhoods, cities and woodlands while Fox Squirrels prefer more rural habitats. Foxys will tolerate more open areas than will grays. And how did the squirrel get to the other side of the pond? He swam! Gray Squirrels can swim up to two miles in calm water.
In Northern Kentucky we’re lucky to also have Black-phase Gray Squirrels. Common in Ft. Mitchell, Edgewood and surrounding areas, these grays have a genetic mutation that causes excessive pigmentation or “melanism.” Ft. Mitchell residents Norbert Hellman and son-in-law Butch Wainscott originally brought black squirrels to our area. While visiting relatives in a suburb of Detroit, where black squirrels are common, Norbert and Butch trapped three black squirrels and released them in Norbert’s yard in the early 1970’s. All the black squirrels in Northern Kentucky today are descendents of those that Norbert and Butch released. When Norbert passed away in 1977, a black squirrel paid tribute by visiting his yard on the day of his funeral.
All it takes to attract squirrels are trees and food. They will eat a variety of feed, including sunflower, peanuts and corn. Squirrels will also readily use well-placed nest boxes. Watching the antics of young squirrels playing around their tree house is pure comedy.
Gayle Pille is a local naturalist and nature writer who many know through her work to establish the five-mile network of nature trails at Highland Cemetery in Ft. Mitchell. She created the cemetery’s popular 25-year-old Wildlife Enhancement Program and works with a small team of volunteers to maintain the cemetery’s wooded walking paths. An avid birdwatcher, Gayle also builds custom wildlife nest boxes for businesses, parks and residences through her business, www.woodlandhabitat.com
Featured picture is Black Squirrel by Ted Denmam