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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Gray squirrels may be state’s most abundant, widely-distributed game animal

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The Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) may be the most abundant, widely-distributed game animal in Kentucky.

They make their homes in leaf nests and the cavities of large trees, in a wide range of environments. This includes remote forests of mountainous eastern Kentucky, farm woodlands, river bottoms, small towns, suburban backyards, and city parks.

Kentucky is about 50 percent forested, with more than 12 million acres of woodlands inhabited by gray squirrels.

In urban/suburban settings, they are notorious bullies at backyard bird feeders.

If fed high carbohydrate “treats” year-round, such as popcorn, shelled corn, peanuts and stale, white bread, gray squirrels can get as fat as small house cats.

In older neighborhoods, in urban settings, where there are large trees, gray squirrels can become something of a nuisance. They follow the limbs to roof tops and find their way through soffits into the attics of older homes, where they ball up insulation for bedding and chew on wiring, creating a fire hazard.

Size and Coloration

Gray squirrels are rather small. Their head and body length varies from about nine to 11 inches, their tails adding another seven to 10 inches. Adults can weigh up to 21 ounces.

They do not display sexual dimorphism — there is no difference in size or coloration between males and females.

They have predominantly gray, brownish fur, with a white underside.

In urban settings, where there is less predation, all white or black individuals may be present.

In rural and urban settings, gray squirrels are preyed upon by hawks, owls, weasels, raccoons, foxes, feral cats, tree-climbing snakes such as rat snakes, and domestic dogs.

Like all squirrels, the gray squirrel has four toes on its front feet and five toes on its hind feet. They hop and jump through the woods, with a bounding stride of two to three feet long. They are strong tree climbers and can descend a tree head first.

Like deer, gray squirrels are crepuscular — more active during the early and late hours of the day.

Visible year round in Kentucky, gray squirrels do not hibernate.

Historically Important Food Source in Early Kentucky

The gray squirrel was a historically important food source in early Kentucky.

In the early 19th century, when wild turkeys, deer, bear, and elk were all but gone, subsistence hunters depended on squirrel and other small game to feed their families. Squirrels were an important ingredient in burgoo, a vegetable and meat stew cooked over an open fire in iron kettles.

On June 13, 1968, the Kentucky General Assembly designated the Eastern Gray Squirrel as the state’s official wild animal game species.

Range and Distribution

Native to the eastern and midwestern U.S., and southern Canada, the gray squirrel’s range extends from New Brunswick, west to Manitoba, south to Texas and east to Florida.

Introduced to several western states in the U.S., South Africa, and Ireland, England, and Italy in Europe, the gray squirrel is considered an invasive species in many countries outside its native range.

Food Habits

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In the fall, gray squirrels feast on hickory nuts, which begin to mature in August. Their food preference switches to acorns and beechnuts in September and October, then walnuts in November.

In the spring gray squirrels eat mostly soft mast — the seeds of maple, ash, elm, wild cherry, mulberry, hackberry and box elder trees. They consume some green vegetation (grasses), and occasionally mushrooms and blackberries.

Insects such as grasshoppers, katydids and locusts, are also a part of their spring diet.

In the fall, the gray squirrel hoards food in numerous small caches for later recovery.

In the process, they may bury mast (acorns and other seeds), aiding in forest regeneration, since not all are recovered and eaten.

Gray squirrels use landmarks to mark their food caches, and smell to uncover buried food, and other squirrels’ caches. In winter, the food that squirrels are looking for is mostly on the ground.

Nesting and Breeding

Gray squirrels build nests in the forks of trees consisting mainly of dry leaves, limbs and twigs, lined with grass, feathers and moss.

Males and females may share the same nest for short times during the breeding season, and during cold winter spells, to stay warm. If available, they may inhabit a permanent den, in a cavity, or hollowed out trunk of a large tree or dead snag.

The gray squirrel’s high mortality rate is offset by a high reproductive rate. They have two breeding seasons — one in the late winter and a second in early summer.

Normally, one to four young are born in each litter. The gestation period is about 44 days. Young are weaned at about 10 weeks, and they begin to leave the nest after 12 weeks.

Top Small Game Species

The gray squirrel is the most stable and abundant small game species in Kentucky.

Hunters have a 28-day spring season, and a split fall/winter season of 192 days in Kentucky. The daily bag limit is six squirrels.

Hunting squirrels gives young hunters what they need for success in the field, while teaching gun safety and marksmanship.

When you show a young hunter how to walk quietly through the woods and blend in with trees and shadows while hunting gray squirrels, you pass on Kentucky’s proud hunting heritage.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for NKyTribune. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors column.

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