One of the most widespread, familiar mammals in Ohio is the gray squirrel.
They occur in the wildest woodlands and the most urban parklands, the common denominator being trees.
Gray squirrels are a fixture of suburbia, and many bird lovers have waged war against the wily seed-stealers. Keeping gluttonous squirrels off backyard feeders involves both a battle of wits and superior engineering. Homeowners often lose.
It sometimes seems as if the animals have Velcro paw pads. A squirrel racing through the trees at full tilt makes for a spectacle. Running full-barrel up and down trunks, and racing across spindly limbs, the beasts make wild, death-defying, branch-to-branch leaps that would put any circus performer to shame.
The range of the gray squirrel delineates that of the great eastern deciduous forest, which once stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River, south to the Gulf of Mexico and north to southern Canada. Before settlement, this was probably the second most numerous squirrel in the East. The secretive, nocturnal southern flying squirrel was likely even more common.
A healthy gray squirrel is a handsome animal. Taping out at nearly a foot in length, a squirrel’s length doubles if the thick, brushlike tail is added. A healthy specimen might tip the scales at a pound and a half.
While the coat normally lives up to the squirrel's name — grayish with a white underbelly — color variants are not uncommon. Occasional albinos sometimes become conspicuous celebrities. In some areas, many or most squirrels are melanistic, or black. The Columbus area has small pockets of black squirrels, but it seems that in places like Kent, most gray squirrels are black.
Rural squirrels tend to be far warier than their citified brethren, and they serve vital ecological roles. They harvest and stash a wide variety of tree fruit, some of which will be forgotten and sprout new trees. While acorns, walnuts and other large woody nuts are favored, squirrel diets are quite varied.
The squirrels themselves often become meals. Large raptors such as great horned owls and red-tailed hawks are fond of squirrel meat. Foxes, bobcats and even big black rat snakes also take them.
Squirrel hunting is popular with some people, too, and many gray squirrels are harvested annually in Ohio. Partly because of reasonable bag limits, hunting doesn’t affect populations of this prolific breeder, but that wasn’t always the case. The earliest settlers often had crops ravaged by large numbers of raiding squirrels. One squirrel reduction hunt in 1822 killed nearly 20,000 animals.
Now that the leaves have fallen, basketball-sized leafy clusters high in trees become conspicuous. They are dreys, or squirrel nests. The animals use these botanical forts to raise young and as shelter during cold winter days and nights. Sometimes, multiple animals live in a drey, and their collective body heat can raise the internal temperature far beyond that outside.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.