By Siouxxanne Ellis, March 13, 2019
With spring right around the corner, it’ll be a great time to go outside and enjoy the nice weather. But while many of us may be taking a relaxing walk, many of the squirrels around you are hard at work. Squirrels in North Carolina are active all year round, but the beginning of spring is an especially important time when female squirrels become new mothers.
For the eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), the most common squirrel in North Carolina, the first breeding season lasts through the winter, and baby squirrels, called kits or pups, are born in February and March. But don’t worry if you don’t catch sight of any kits this month, as some squirrels will have another litter after the second breeding season in late summer. Come fall, roughly half of the squirrels you see will have been born just this year!
Spring isn’t only an important time for the gray squirrel, though. Other species of squirrels are also being born here in North Carolina this month, like the fox squirrel (Sciurus niger). Fox squirrels are visibly larger than gray squirrels, and come in many distinctive colors, like black with white markings. Fox squirrel kits are born in February and March and live with their mother for 8 or 9 months.
The southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans) is smaller than the gray squirrel, is usually brown, and has a flap of skin under each arm to help it glide. Flying squirrels have their first breeding season through January and February, with young born a little over a month later. Young flying squirrels stay with their mother until she gives birth to a new liter.
The American red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) is more common outside of North Carolina, but can still be found in the state. These squirrels can breed as early as January or as late as October, depending on weather and location. These squirrels look very similar to gray squirrels, but are usually a bright orange to reddish-brown color.
If you only ever seem to see gray squirrels, you’re not alone. Many people aren’t even aware that there are other native species of squirrels here in North Carolina. It’s possible that you have seen other species of squirrels and assumed they were gray squirrels, as individual coat color can vary across species, making it sometimes unreliable for identification.
However, even the camera traps for Candid Critters overwhelming pick up gray squirrels over any other squirrel species, with gray squirrels making up over 99% of observations. Only 18 red squirrels, 40 fox squirrels, and 23 flying squirrels have been spotted by camera traps, compared to 13,864 gray squirrel observations. The reason that other squirrel species are so rare in North Carolina comes down to habitat. While gray squirrels are at home both in dense forests and the suburbs and are found statewide, our other squirrel species are more selective about where they live.
So where would you need to look to find these less common squirrels? Red squirrels are much more common outside of North Carolina, and can only be found in the mountains here. Flying squirrels, on the other hand, are found across the entire state, but are nocturnal and spend most of their time gliding between trees rather than down on the ground where we can easily spot them.
Fox squirrels were historically reliant on the rare longleaf pine ecosystem, which used to cover much of coastal North Carolina. However, forest clearing and fire suppression have greatly reduced the coverage of longleaf pine forests throughout the southeast. While this has surely had a long-term impact on fox squirrel populations, they remain relatively abundant in remaining longleaf pine stands, but can also be found in mature mixed pine-hardwood stands with an open understory in portions of the coastal plain. In recent years, increasing numbers of fox squirrels are found in our northwestern counties, likely a result of a range expansion from neighboring Virginia.
If you’d like to learn more about the efforts to conserve the longleaf pine ecosystem, check out these projects:
Or visit a North Carolina state park like the Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve