Nature Note 100: A Scurry of Squirrels - Eastern Gray Squirrel

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Nature Note

A Scurry of Squirrels - Eastern Gray Squirrel

Eastern gray squirrel on a tree trunk. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I've been watching Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) scurry about the forest in their annual end-of-summer rush to collect and store seeds and nuts. The usual first tip-off of their harvesting activity is the fresh scatter of oak branch tips on the forest floor. The squirrels climb out to the tip of an oak branch that is laden with acorns and clip the branch with their teeth. The branch tip and all its acorns fall to the ground. A squirrel will continue its tree top harvest before moving down to the forest floor to collect and store the acorns, leaving the telltale branch tips behind. 

Red and White Oak branch tips with leaves side-by-side.

Left to right: Red Oak branch tip and a White Oak branch tip harvested by an Eastern Gray Squirrel. Below: An acorn on the forest floor.

Acorn on the forest floor - a close-up image.

Many of the acorns that squirrels harvest and bury in multiple caches (called scatter hoarding) for eating over the winter will not be eaten but will sprout and grow within their hidden locations the following spring. This seed dispersal by squirrels is important to the long-term survival of forests. 

Though nuts and seeds make up a large part of their diet, eastern gray squirrels also eat the flowers and buds of trees and other plants, fruit, fungi, eggs, birds, insects, and frogs. Insects are thought to be important to the diet of young squirrels. 

Eastern Gray Squirrel Facts

  • A group of unrelated squirrels is called a scurry. Since squirrels are generally territorial a scurry is not often seen.
  • A family of squirrels, the mother and her young, are called a dray.
  • Habitat preference is a mature continuous woodland of oaks and other nut and seed-producing trees.
  • Squirrel watching comes in second place after bird watching in many wildlife watching polls.
  • Eastern gray squirrels were reintroduced to the Capitol grounds in Washington DC, by Elliot Woods, Superintendent of the Capitol Building and Grounds, after their population plummeted.
  • Lifespan can be as much as 12.5 years in the wild. 
  • Females usually start having young when they are over 1 year old but can give birth at 5-1/2 months. Two litters per year are produced each year - one in late winter, another in mid-summer - after a 44 day gestation.
  • A nest is built either in a tree hollow or as a large ball of leaves and sticks high up in a tree's branches. The young are born with eyes closed and hairless. Weaning begins at 8 weeks. They leave the nest at 10-12 weeks and are fully grown at nine months. Adult weight average is 4 pounds.

(Squirrel photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. All other photos by Jocelyn Hubbell.)

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