Shadow Tails — November - December 1994

by Janice Welsh


Every squirrel carries an umbrella. The squirrel puts it up to stay dry when eating nuts in the rain or snow. The umbrella is its big, bushy tail.

The name squirrel comes from the Greek skiouros, which means shadow-tailed, because the tail is big enough to shade the rest of the animal.

Squirrels belong to a group of animals called rodents. Their front teeth never stop growing. Why? Because rodents are always chewing and gnawing, so their teeth must grow to keep from grinding down to nothing.

Squirrels live all over Minnesota. They have adapted to living in the city as well as the country.

Tree squirrels prefer to live in tree cavities. If a squirrel cannot find a comfortable hole, it will build a large nest. It puts leafy twigs in the fork of a tree, then adds leaves, grass, and small twigs. If you see a big clump of leaves and branches in a treetop, it probably belongs to a squirrel.

Nuts and Holes

Squirrels like to eat nuts and seeds. That's why they live near trees such as oak, walnut, hickory, and maple. They also look for pine cones and other seeds, berries, grain, mushrooms, insects, small animals, and spring buds and flowers on trees and shrubs. Because squirrels will eat baby birds, you might see birds squawking at squirrels near their nests.

Squirrels stash nuts in hollow trees and under fallen leaves. Gray and fox squirrels spend a lot of time digging holes and burying single nuts and acorns in the ground. During the winter they sniff out the acorns and dig them up to eat. Naturalists have seen squirrels dig through a foot of snow to find a cache of nuts. Of course, the squirrels miss some nuts, and in this way they help plant the next forest.

gray squirrel

Gray Squirrel

This squirrel is gray with white-tipped fur on its tail. Most gray squirrels weigh 1 pound.

You'll see gray squirrels in towns and forests with big old trees. They are busiest in the early morning and late afternoon.

Like all squirrels, they shake their tail when someone or something upsets them.

flying squirrel

Flying Squirrel

The flying squirrel does not fly. It glides. (A bat is the only mammal that can really fly, rising and staying high in the air as a bird does.)

The flying squirrel uses strong back feet to spring like a cat from a treetop. Then it quickly flattens its tail and spreads the loose folds of skin that stretch like a web between its front and hind feet. If you looked up at a gliding squirrel, it would look almost square. The squirrel tightens or loosens its skin to help change direction. To land, the squirrel lowers its tail, then jerks it up and comes down on its hind feet. By gliding, the squirrel can escape predators and go a long way in a hurry.

The flying squirrel has a silky, reddish-brown coat and large, round eyes. It weighs only 2 or 3 ounces. Though you hardly ever see this nocturnal (night-time) creature, it lives throughout Minnesota. It prefers thick forests but sometimes takes shelter in a birdhouse or visits a bird feeder at night.

red squirrel

Red Squirrel

This tiny squirrel weighs about half a pound. In summer its fur is rusty red. With colder weather, the fur turns brown, except for a streak of red down its back.

You can tell when a red squirrel is defending its feeding range against intruders: It is noisy. First it flicks its tail and chirps, chatters, whistles, and scolds. Then it barks and stomps its hind feet, often leaping from perch to perch.

If you see a pile of pine cones, you can guess that a red squirrel has been at work. Its favorite food is conifer seeds. The red squirrel stockpiles cones, as well as nuts and other seeds. After eating, it leaves a pile of shells and cones.

Red squirrels are most common in the northern pine forests, but live as far south as northern Iowa.

red squirrel

Fox Squirrel

This squirrel looks a lot like a gray squirrel, but it has orange (fox-colored) fur on its ears, back, and tail. It weighs up to 3 pounds - much more than the gray squirrel.

Fox squirrels are rare in the northern third of Minnesota. They prefer oak wood lots and field edges, but they live in the city too. They feed mostly on nuts, but also eat insects, buds, and fruit. In farm country, they eat mostly field corn.

Snow Tracks

Squirrels do not hibernate. They stay in their nests or dens during harsh winter days. If the fall nut crop was small, the squirrels need to hunt for more food even during bad winter weather.

Baby Squirrels

Squirrels give birth to an average of two to five baby squirrels in March or April. Blind, hairless, and helpless, the little ones need a lot of care from their mother. (Male squirrels do not help raise the young.)

mother squirrel with young

After about six weeks, the baby squirrels have all their fur. Then they open their eyes and begin to explore outside the nest. By the time they are 2 months, squirrels can eat nutmeats. After two more weeks, they can crack open the shells themselves. When something threatens a baby squirrel, the mother rescues it. The baby curls around her neck for a quick ride back to the nest.

The female sometimes has a second litter of baby squirrels in July or August. Shortly before her second litter is born, the first young squirrels leave to find new places to live.

Many yearling squirrels leave their territory in the fall and migrate to new places.

Fox, gray, and red squirrels are full-grown at 10 months. Flying squirrels are grown-up when 1 1/2 years old. Squirrels have a long list of enemies: dogs, cats, snakes, foxes, fishers, martens, hawks, owls, and sometimes people. If they stay away from predators, gray squirrels can live 15 years, red and fox squirrels 10 years, and flying squirrels about five.

Are you ready for the Squirrel Quiz?

Janice Welsh, who wrote this story, works for the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program, St. Paul.

A complete copy of the article can be found in the November-December 1994 issue of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, available at Minnesota public libraries.