Sunday, January 19, 2020

Nature: Sighting of fox squirrel came with a colorful twist

This melanistic fox squirrel appeared in the writer's backyard on January 9/Jim McCormac

 A normally colored eastern fox squirrel/Jim McCormac

Sighting of fox squirrel came with a colorful twist

January 19, 2020

Jim McCormac

Four species of tree squirrels reside in Ohio, and all have their charms.

The smallest and least known is the southern flying squirrel. It is common but seldom seen because of its strictly nocturnal habits.

Slightly bigger is the red squirrel, which occurs statewide but is more localized than other squirrels. It has a distinct preference for coniferous trees.

Most common is the well-known eastern gray squirrel, the typical squirrel of parks and suburbia in this area. Those who feed backyard birds wage war with this mammal. The squirrels often win.

Then there is the largest squirrel of all, the gorgeous eastern fox squirrel. A whopper can weigh 3 pounds and stretch 3 feet or more from nose to outstretched tail tip. If there were a beauty pageant for squirrels, this one might wear the tiara.

They are foxy indeed, with underparts tinted in showy burnt-orange. The upper pelage is a lovely grayish-black.

From my experience, gray squirrels far outnumber foxes in Columbus and its neighborhoods. The latter becomes more common in rural areas.

I recently moved to Worthington, an area I have long been acquainted with. Gray squirrels are abundant, but I have never seen a fox squirrel in my neighborhood — until Jan. 9.

That morning, I glanced out a back window to see a huge black squirrel sitting prominently on an open snag. It was as if it was posing for me. I usually keep a camera with a big telephoto lens at the ready, in case something bizarre appears at the feeders. Photographic prep paid dividends in this case.

Not only did I document the yard’s first fox squirrel, but it also was a rare melanistic morph, or form. My first thought was that it was a melanistic gray squirrel, but the massive size and tinges of orange bleeding through on the animal’s underside gave it away.

Black forms are far more common in gray squirrels, and in some parts of Columbus such animals are local celebrities. Melanin-enhanced fox squirrels seem to be virtually unknown, at least in Ohio. I have many biologically literate friends, and not one has said they have seen a black fox squirrel.

Melanistic fox squirrels are known to occur, just in far fewer numbers than grays. Most black fox squirrels appear in the southern reaches of the range, which spans the eastern half of the U.S. Conversely, melanism in gray squirrels is more prolific in the northern parts of its distribution.

Although the genetic mechanisms that produce melanism in squirrels is well-understood, the role of environmental factors that favor melanism, and possible gene flow between fox and gray squirrels, is lesser known.

I have not seen the dusky fox squirrel since the day I discovered it. Maybe it’s the vanguard of a wave to come, or it was a flash in the pan. Such animals would certainly enrich our squirrel diversity, that’s for sure.

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


JGD said...

The black squirrels were brought back from Canada by a professor from Kent State and they proliferated throughout the state.

Unknown said...

We moved into our current home in 1983, in a more rural subdivision in Heath, OH in Licking County. At that time our back yard was wooded, we had nothing but big, beautiful Fox squirrels in our back yard, and many of them. At one point during their tenure, we had several albino fox squirrels in the neighborhood, as well. Within about 10 years, we were seeing more and more gray squirrels, and now that is all we see. We decided that the gray squirrels must be more aggressive, and that they likely drove the fox squirrels away. Don't know if that is true.

Alice said...

Thank you so much for the wonderful column on squirrels this past week. I was very excited that you mentioned the Southern Flying Squirrel. This past spring while taking the dog for our morning walk around our barn, in Pataskala, I noticed a "rodent" lying on the ground out in the open. Upon tapping it with my foot I quickly figured out it was dead. I gently picked it up by the tail to take it to the house as I had not seen any creature like this before. The tail was soft and bushy, the feet looked like a squirrel so did the face and ears and it had the extra skin "flaps" between front and back legs. It was very soft, darker in color than even the field mice etc. that I was accustomed to seeing around here and much smaller that the occasional Fox squirrel that I see. I took several pictures of it so that I could identify it at some time. We have lived on this farm for 25 years but did not know that flying squirrels were around here. Thank you again for this info and maybe I will be lucky enough to see another at some time.

Jim McCormac said...

Yes, the grays are definitely more aggressive than the foxes, and the melanistic variants seem more aggressive yet.

Glad the flying squirrel info was useful, Alice, and sorry you had to confirm your first like that. I'm going to make a post very soon on a recent foray where we saw 18 of them!

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