I vividly remember the first time I saw a fox squirrel. It was in the mid-1970s when I was playing golf at Fort Jackson. Even though I had been interested in animals all my life and possessed a degree in zoology, I had never actually seen a fox squirrel — at least that I could remember. I stood in awe for so long that I interrupted the flow of our golf game. What a wonderful creature. Fox squirrels are big, almost twice the size of the common gray squirrel. And unlike their gray cousins, they can be quite colorful. Three different color phases are found in South Carolina: gray (the most common), black, and brown, but all three phases feature black and white patches on the nose, paws, and tips of the ears.
Fox squirrels can be found throughout most of the eastern United States; they are absent in New England, New Jersey, much of New York, and parts of Pennsylvania, as well as the Dakotas, Colorado, and Texas. They have been successfully introduced in a number of other states, including California, Washington, and New Mexico. In South Carolina, fox squirrels can be found throughout the Coastal Plain but occur less often in the Piedmont. They are almost entirely absent in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Fox squirrels prefer mature pine forests, especially longleafed pines. They can also be found in mixed stands of pine and hardwoods. Due to commercial and residential development, fox squirrel habitat has dramatically declined in the Midlands, thus reducing populations. Efforts are underway to reestablish longleaf pines in parts of Northeast Columbia so that squirrels can be reintroduced. Fortunately, they can still be seen in many parks and golf courses, Fort Jackson being an excellent example.
The eastern fox squirrel and the eastern gray squirrel are both members of the Sciuridae family, in other words, rodents. While not common, the two species can share the same habitat but do not interbreed. They have home territories of a few acres and can live six to 10 years, although most succumb at a much younger age. They also differ in activity. Fox squirrels are active mostly during the daytime and sleep at night, whereas gray squirrels are most active in the morning and late afternoon. People who have bird feeders will probably take issue with the latter assessment.
Fox squirrels are not picky eaters. Their diet includes pine seeds, acorns, hickory nuts, seeds, blackberries, mushrooms, insect larvae, and even bird eggs.
Female fox squirrels produce litters of two to three young, usually in mid-December or early January and will often produce a second litter in June. Gestation occurs over a period of 44 to 45 days. They prefer to nest in tree cavities but will also build a leaf nest similar to gray squirrels. Compared to most rodents, baby fox squirrels develop slowly. They are born blind and hairless, and their eyes open at 4 to 5 weeks of age. They may not be entirely self-supporting until 16 weeks.
Surprisingly, fox squirrels have few natural predators. Predators do not actively hunt fox squirrels but prey on them opportunistically. Predators include bobcats, foxes, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawk, and owls. In those states where fox squirrels are not protected, they are considered a game animal and are still hunted over most of their range, including South Carolina, where fox and gray squirrels can be hunted from October through March.
It’s been 40 years since my first encounter with fox squirrels, but I still get excited with each and every sighting. If you are new to the Midlands, or even an experienced naturalist, I encourage you to seek out prime fox squirrel habitat and search for these beautiful little mammals. You will not be disappointed.
Satch Krantz, former president and CEO of Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, whose career there spanned 44 years, led the zoo to national prominence. He received the R. Marlin Perkins award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the highest recognition for zoo professionals, as well as The Order of the Palmetto, the highest civilian honor in South Carolina.