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Is That A Red Squirrel Or A Gray Squirrel?
Neither! It's a Fox Squirrel!
Yesterday, my family was taking a drive through Henry County, KY, to visit the farm of one of my husband’s friends. As we neared the farm, we kept having to slow down to avoid hitting these really large, red squirrels that ran across the highway.
I said, “Wow! That’s a red squirrel? I’ve never seen a red squirrel before!”
My husband (who is NOT a naturalist) said, “Yeah. You probably won’t see many of them. I think they’re an endangered species.”
When we got to his friend’s farm, we told him about seeing the “rare red squirrels.” And, yes, we are, in fact, city people - myself more-so than my husband, but I think he’s lived in the city long enough to qualify as a city person.
The farmer just laughed at us and said, “Those things? Those aren’t red squirrels, but that’s what we call them out here. Those are fox squirrels. And they sure aren’t in any danger of extinction. They’re all over the place out here.”
The Ubiquitous Fox Squirrel
I thought that was such an odd comment for him to make. They’re everywhere? Why hadn’t I ever seen one, then? And both this farmer and my husband (even though he’d misidentified the squirrel) said that they had both seen them in the city, which was only about 50 miles southwest. So, where had I been? Why hadn’t I ever seen one of these fox squirrels?
The obvious answer was that, of course, I had seen a fox squirrel before. I just didn’t know it. And, in doing some Internet research, I found out that this may, in fact, be the case.
The fox squirrel is often mistaken for its rodent cousins - the red squirrel and the gray squirrel.
The American Red Squirrel
The American Red Squirrel is most closely related to the Douglas Sqiurrel and the Mearns’s Squirrel. They are much smaller than the fix squirrel and are also distinctive because of their red fur and white underbelly. The red squirrel eats seeds from pines and other cone-bearing trees.
The American Red Squirrel can be found across most of North America. Their living range extends from Canada all the way to Arizona, although the population in that state is almost extinct. Maybe that’s what my husband was thinking of when he said he thought red squirrels were extinct. He just had the wrong creature and region in mind!
The Eastern Gray Squirrel
These little guys are everywhere around here. This is the animal I always think of when I hear the word "squirrel."
The Eastern Gray Squirrel is native to the eastern and midwestern U.S., and its territory overlaps, to a large extent, with that of the fox squirrel. And they have about the same coloring as the fox squirrel. Sometimes you will even see a gray squirrel with a reddish coat! That is why it is so easy to confuse the two. To really tell them apart, you'd have to look and see if the squirrel had a white underbelly or not.
The two rodent cousins seem to have very different diets, though. Gray squirrels tend to eat just about any kind of plant life - tree bark, seeds, cones, nuts, and even fungus. Fox squirrels eat mostly seeds and nuts, but they have also been known to eat a variety of things - including birds' eggs and small lizards!
So, to avoid confusion, I guess I could always offer the squirrel some lizard meat and see if he goes for it. If he does, I guess we have a fox squirrel, and not a gray squirrel.
No Wonder I Was So Confused!
What we call a red squirrel here isn't really a red squirrel after all. It's a fox squirrel. And, while I really did believe I'd never seen a fox squirrel before, I very well might have. If I did, I probably just mistook it for the common gray squirrel, not knowing the difference.
Now, the next time we go to Henry County, I will be able to say, "Oh, there's one of those fox squirrels again!" Or, maybe I'll even be able to recognize one if I see it in the city, now that I know what I'm looking for. I never realized before that they were so many different species of squirrel that were so similar to each other!