Whether they are raiding the bird feeder, transplanting tulip bulbs, making themselves at home in the attic or delighting you with their antics, gray squirrels inspire joy and angst. One of the main attractions of backyard gardens, they are the second most watched wildlife in North America, after birds, and there's no denying their appeal with their long, fluffy tail, soft brown eyes and amazing acrobatic skills.
Gray squirrels have predominantly gray fur over the top of their bodies and white or light gray fur on their bellies. Melanistic variants produce black squirrels and albinistic variants produce white or albino squirrels. Adults weigh up to 1-1/4 pounds and they are 18 to 20 inches long. Their most distinctive physical characteristic is their bushy tail, which also is a handy tool that can be used for balance, a sun shade, an umbrella, a blanket and a rudder when swimming. They have four front teeth that, like other rodents, are ever-growing, and that they wear down by constantly gnawing on wood and other materials in their environment. .
Distribution and Habitat
Gray squirrels range throughout North America, England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia and parts of Europe. A fixture in the urban landscape, woodlands and parks, gray squirrels live in deciduous trees, such as red maple, American beech, sweet gum, American elm and white oak, where they make nests with leaves, thistle down, moss and other dried plant matter in cavities and old woodpecker holes high up in the forks of trees. Their large nests are camouflaged by foliage in the summer, and readily seen in late fall and winter when the leaves have fallen to the ground.
Gray squirrels are omnivores and dine on a diverse assortment of foods, including acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts, beechnuts, grapes, apples, berries, maple buds, maple bark, maple samaras, yellow poplar blossoms, American hornbeam seeds, black cherry, flowering dogwood, sedges, grasses, American holly, fungi and other plant matter, adult insects and larvae, baby birds, bird eggs, toads, frogs and other amphibians. They also sometimes are cannibalistic and eat their own kind.
The lifespan of gray squirrels in the wildusually is about 5 years, but they have been known to live 20 years in captivity. However, predation by owls, hawks, raccoons, red fox, feral and outdoor domestic cats, and snakes may shorten their lives considerably. They only survive due to their agility, and good senses of vision, smell and hearing, and they are excellent swimmers. Gray squirrels also seem to defy gravity and can quickly scale vertical walls. Like raccoons, they exit trees headfirst down the trunk, except they’re lightning-fast rather than lumbering. Squirrels keep their ever-growing teeth clean and sharp by gnawing on a hard branch and maneuvering it in their strong jaws so as to rub against the teeth. This daily ritual can take up to an hour to perform. Peak activity for gray squirrels is in the morning and evening, when they are constantly on the move, usually seeking food. Gray squirrels do not hibernate, but they are less active in winter.
Gray squirrels play an important role in reforestation with their habit of planning for the future by hiding nuts and tree seeds in hundreds of locations in the fall to eat throughout the winter. Called scatter hoarding, this pattern ensures that even if some of the buried food is found by other animals, enough will remain for the squirrel. Several are never recovered and sprout, growing into trees.
Gray squirrels mate in the late winter. They have a second litter mid-summer if there is an adequate food supply. Several males compete for one female in a ritual chase at breakneck speeds up and down and through the trees, leaping from branch to branch. The female then selects the one she perceives as the strongest male, rarely mating with the same male again -- nature’s way of preventing inbreeding and, thus, preserving the integrity of the species. After a gestation period of about 60 days, the young are born blind and hairless. There usually are four babies and each is one inch long and weighs only one ounce. The young of the second litter remain with their mother for the winter.
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