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Outfoxing a backyard visitors bigger brother

Once Lewis and Clark hit the Great Plains, the bird and animal life they encountered changed, often significantly. Leaving the Eastern hardwood forests for the vast seas of grass provided them a study in biome contrast. Critters small and large were described and catalogued along the way by these iconic explorers. Some were even trapped and sent back to the states, like the Black-tailed Prairie Dog and the Black-billed Magpie.

Squirrels were among the many animals listed. These can be categorized into three groups: tree squirrels, flying squirrels and ground squirrels. Certainly the men of the Corps of Discovery ran into many more ground squirrels across the prairies than anything else. But of the tree squirrels, only the Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) was common there. And that is still true today.

Locally, and in town, the Gray Squirrel is easily the most common followed by the Red Squirrel. But once you leave the confines of a river course and head out into farm land, the larger cousin--Fox Squirrel--reigns in terms of numbers. Its the more open woodlands or shelterbelt habitats that you find them. That is not to say that there arent a few in town though. Recently, I saw all three tree squirrel species within a 10-foot area, feeding in West Fargos Armour Park.

Fox Squirrels are the largest of the tree squirrelsup to three pounds in some parts of the country. And like many animals they come in different colors (the species name niger is Latin for black, this is because the first one described by science was an all black specimen). Our local version is more true to its common name with grayish, rust-colored hair. It also has a yellowish red chin and belly. Their faces seem more robust, almost dog-like, and have smaller rounded ears than the other tree squirrels. There is no difference between the sexes.

For whatever reason Fox Squirrels are not very social; one usually finds them individually on the edges of shelterbelts. Winter is an exception, however, when they will often nest with a family group in a tree hollow. Unlike ground squirrels, tree squirrels do not hibernate so are active year round.

Fox Squirrels spend more time on the ground than their cousins foraging for food. Here they move with an ungainly walk or hopnot graceful, liquid glides like the Gray Squirrel. But like the other tree squirrels, the Fox Squirrel spends the late summer and fall caching food for the winter. It can be seen burying various nuts and seeds over a wide area. Then the squirrel uses its highly developed sense of smell to locate these treasures throughout the winter. In addition, Fox Squirrels also feed on buds, mushrooms, berries, pinecones, roots, insects and even bird eggs. Also, its appetite for sunflowers and green corn puts it at odds with farmers at times.

According to Chris Grondahl of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, the male Fox Squirrel comes into breeding condition from November through July. With a gestation of about 45 days, young are born anywhere from February through September. They are dependent upon their mothers for the first three to four months and reach sexual maturity in 10 months. First-year females typically raise one brood while older ones produce two. A typical life span in the wild is four to seven years.

In some parts of the country, squirrels are prized as table fare. To a lesser extent that is true in North Dakota where they are considered a small game species and managed as such by regulation. Given the relative size difference of the tree squirrels, I would guess the Fox Squirrel would be deemed the more sought-after meal.

No doubt, this species provided a supper or two for Lewis and Clark as they made their way west. But even if you dont hunt them, you can still enjoy their playful and intelligent antics--even in winter, when wildlife viewing for us northlanders can be pretty sparse.