You may not be a fan of squirrels, but on January 21st, it is a day to celebrate them because it is Squirrel Appreciation Day! There are over 280 species of squirrels in the world. In Ontario we have four types of squirrels; Eastern Grey, Red and Northern Flying and Southern Flying. Black squirrels are a colour variety of the Eastern Grey Squirrel and not a separate species.
Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)
- The largest of the Ontario squirrels with the longest lifespan, averaging 12.5 years in the wild and 23.5 years in captivity.
- Most common in mixed or deciduous forests, but they have adapted very well to urban life.
- They are most active during the daytime, just after sunrise and around mid afternoon in the summer, and in the winter, midday.
- They are very social, with overlapping home ranges and a well established social hierarchy, or pecking order. The squirrel social circle runs very well, at least until a migrant, often younger squirrel shows up which can lead to some feisty squirrels fights. These fights tend to be more a show of dominance than physical, with displays of tail wagging, chasing and loud chattering.
- Besides your tulip bulbs and birdseed, Grey squirrels will also eat nuts, buds, pine cones, fruit, berries, insects, eggs and the occasional baby mouse or bird.
- They will collect and store food in a variety of places, a behavior known as 'scatter hoarding', and they are very good at it. They can store up to 25 nuts in a half hour! Unfortunately they aren't as good at remembering where they stored them and forget as much as 60% of the seeds and nuts they buried. This isn't a bad thing as the forgotten nuts of the squirrels most often grow into new trees.
- Grey Squirrels eat twice as much food in the winter to keep warm, which is why you may see chubby squirrels in years where it isn't as cold and there is no snow. With less snow, it is easier for them to find more food to fatten up on, and with warmer temperatures, they will not burn off the fat they are building up as quickly.
- In the summer, Grey squirrels will live in leaf nests, made from twigs and leaves. In the colder months, they move to warmer homes inside tree cavities or other more insulated burrows.
Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)
- This is the middle sized squirrel for Ontario, with an average lifespan in the wild of 5 years and 9 years in captivity.
- Red squirrels are more common in evergreen or coniferous trees and forests as the cones are a major part of their diet.
- They are most active during the day, adjusting their busy periods to the weather, avoiding the hottest part of the day in the summer months, and sticking to the warmest parts of the day in the winter.
- Unlike Eastern Grey squirrels, Red squirrels are highly territorial and will aggressively defend their territory, even against larger squirrels and other animals.
- They also collect a variety of food such as seeds, berries, nuts, buds and mushrooms but are also known to eat insects, eggs, small rodents, frogs and salamanders.
- They store their food in one or two places, which is called "larder hoarding". You may find a Red squirrel storage area in an underground burrow, a hollow of a tree or in other cool and moist areas. These piles can get very large and several feet deep.
- Red squirrels will collect mushrooms and leave them on tree branch to dry for a day or two before eating them.
- Despite being territorial, Red squirrels are very good and communicating with others to warn them about nearby predators. They even have a different call for predators in the air from ground predators so the other squirrels know where to watch.
Northern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus)
- This is Ontario's second smallest squirrel and the shortest lived with an average lifespan of 4 years in the wild and 9 years in captivity.
- They prefer old growth, mature coniferous forests.
- Northern Flying squirrels are hard to tell apart from their relative the Southern Flying Squirrel in areas where they overlap.
- These are most active a night, a few hours after sunset and again a few hours before sunrise.
- These are far less common than than both Eastern Grey and Red squirrels, partially because they are nocturnal, or active during the night, and also because of low populations because of habitat loss.
- They do not actually fly, they glide through the air using their "patagium", a furry piece of skin, similar to a cape, that runs from their arms to their legs. Despite being somewhat clumsy on the ground, they can soar up to 48 metres through the air.
- The females are territorial, but the males are not.
- Northern Flying squirrels have similar diets to the other squirrels, with one exception; their diet has a much larger portion of mushrooms, fungi and lichens than the others. By eating and storing fungi, they lay an important role in spreading fungal spores through the forest, which are a very important component of the forest ecosystem.
Southern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys volans)
- A close relative of the Northern Flying Squirrel, but it is slightly smaller, making it Ontario's smallest squirrel. They live a bit longer than the Northern Flying squirrels at 5-6 years in the wild and 12 years in captivity.
- They prefer old growth deciduous forests with lot so nut bearing trees such as oak, hickory and beech.
- They can glide up to 80 meters in one flight.
- In their northern range (into southeastern Ontario) they will nest together in the winter with 10-20 individual in one nest.
- Similar to the Northern Flying squirrel, when they land on a tree after a glide, they will quickly scurry to the other side or the tree to avoid any predator that may have followed them through the air.
- Best chances of seeing either the Southern or Northern Flying squirrel is on bird feeders at the cottage or other heavily treed areas, within a few hours after sunset.
Biokids - Interagency Education Research Initiative
Stokes Guide to Animal Tracking and Behavior - Donald and Lillian Stokes