Gray Squirrel Sciurus carolinensis Gmelin

Description:   Gray squirrels can be distinguished from other Kansas members of the squirrel family by: 1) soft, dense fur, uniformly colored, gray above and white below, 2) tail hairs buffy at the base, black in the middle and tipped with white, 3) yellowish brown head and sides, 4) white eye rings, and 5) rather prominent ears, tapering toward the tips. Seasonal differences in color are due to an annual molt in summer, and to fading. There is no difference in the colors of the sexes. Young are paler and more grayish than adults. They have a long, graceful and bushy tail (which is used for balance, as a parachute, or to protect the animal from the sun or cold).

Size:   Adults may attain the following dimensions: total length 380-525 mm; tail 150-250 mm; hind foot 54-76 mm; ear 28-35 mm; weight 300-713 grams.

Range and Habitat:   Gray squirrels are found throughout eastern Kansas where they are associated with oak-hickory deciduous forests. They are especially abundant in our towns and cities. The subspecies found in northeastern Kansas is Sciurus carolinensis pennsylvanicus, whereas S. c. carolinensis occurs in the southeast.

Reproduction:   There are two peaks of reproduction per year, one in January, and a second in late May and early June. Females generally do not breed their first year. Males are promiscuous breeders and during the breeding period there is considerable activity. Several males may pursue a female in breeding condition up and down branches and from one tree to the next in what is termed a "mating chase." After a gestation period of approximately 44 days, one to eight (usually two to four) naked, pink young are born. The head and feet of the young are proportionately larger than the rest of the body. At birth the eyes and ears are closed. The ears open 28 days later and the eyes 4 days after that. In six weeks the body is covered with hair. In two months the young are weaned and are one-half grown. They are fully furred, and their tails are bushy. Young born in the spring disperse before the summer breeding period while those born in summer may disperse, or remain with the female through the winter. Females have eight nipples.

Habits:   Gray squirrels are diurnal and usually active from early morning to late evening in both summer and winter. When observed they are often feeding on tree buds at the ends of branches with their bodies outstretched to full extent and tail hanging straight down. At other times they may rest on a horizontal limb with tail arched over the back as if screening themselves from the sun or potential predators. Sometimes an animal will assume this position partially supported by its legs, but frequently will be lying upon its belly with legs dangling. The species is more arboreal than terrestrial, is well adapted for climbing, and can negotiate any angle or side of a tree or limb. Adults may jump as far as 2.5 meters between trees. Gray squirrels are frequently observed crossing roads or small creeks through the tree canopy. They are shy squirrels and will attempt to place a tree trunk or limb between themselves and an intruder. On the ground, this squirrel searches for food by hopping or moving with an ambling walk. They typically feed while resting on their hind quarters while adeptly manipulateing food with their front feet. When disturbed they move with great speed either on the ground or in trees. Upon reaching an elevated refuge they may call with a characteristic scolding noise, the tail flipping with each bark. Home range size is usually less than five hectares. Male home ranges are typically larger than those of females.

  Gray squirrel nests typically are lined with plant fibers, and are placed either in a tree-hole or in a ball of dry leaves lodged among upper tree limbs, either type being suitable for summer or winter use. Although gray squirrels and fox squirrels are sometimes found in the same trees, they are compatible, and aggressive behavior between these species is rarely seen.

Food:   The food of gray squirrels is principally nuts, eaten according to the cycle of nut reproduction which generally peaks in the autumn. Buried nuts are relocated by a keen sense of smell and eaten at various times during the winter. Unexcavated nuts are potential seedlings the following season. Seeds, fruits, buds, leaves, flowers, and insects are eaten also and, because of the gray squirrel's ability to travel through trees, it occasionally eats bird eggs and nestlings. Winter survival of squirrels is greatly affected by the size of the Fall mast.

Remarks:   Predators of gray squirrels include coyotes, foxes, bobcats, hawks, owls, and occasionally weasels, raccoons, and snakes. In summer, some gray squirrels show signs of mange (loss of hair from mite infection). Longevity for this squirrel is normally less than five years. Maximum wild longevity is 12.5 years (females) and 9 years (males). In captivity, one female lived more than 20 years.

Gray Squirrels and the Weather
originally published in the St. Louis Express and reprinted in the Corpus Christi Ranchero for 5 November 1859.

"A COLD WINTER PREDICTED. -- About ten days ago, a tremendous drove of grey squirrels, numbering hundreds of thousands, suddenly made their appearance on the Meramac, covering the trees and water like a pall. Thousands of them were afterwards found dead in the river and on the ground."

"They crossed the Mississippi at that point, and worked their way down the river, until on Wednesday they reached Cape Girardue, crossing the river at that point in countless myriads. The citizens turned out en masse and killed them by the hundreds. -- Every tree and bush in that vicinity swarmed with them until night when they all disappeared, and have not been heard from since. Their route was marked as by a devastating storm. Trees were girdled, and fields destroyed. Old French settlers predict a very severe winter, as it was noticed in 1834 and '52 that immense droves of squirrels suddenly made their appearance, followed by intensely severe weather. -- St. Louis Express."


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