by Mike Reiter
Polk County Naturalist
Wisconsin is home to 5 species of tree squirrels which include the gray, fox and red squirrels, plus the northern and southern flying squirrels. There also are the thirteen-lined and Franklin ground squirrels and eastern and least chipmunks plus the larger woodchuck rounding out the list of “squirrelly” rodents.
Some consider the tree squirrels that come to their bird feeders unwelcome pests, but to us, they are considered welcome visitors. The loss of a few sunflower seeds taken from our feathered, bird friends and given to our furry, squirrel guests are well worth the trouble when compared to the joy the squirrels provide with their playful antics!
Back when I was a youth growing up in Chippewa Falls, everyone hunted and everything harvested ended up as an entrée on the dining room table! Today very few folks now hunt squirrels but back then fox and gray squirrels, rabbits, grouse and pheasants all became a viable protein source that was utilized to the fullest. The pressure cooker was my mom’s favorite cooking vessel of choice and out of it would emerge some of the tastiest meals imaginable. Carrots, potatoes and other vegetables were added to the main meat course. Topped with thick gravy the mere thought of it still makes my mouth water! Today, my wife Sally, has replaced the pressure cooker with the “slow cooker” and her culinary preparations are every bit as good and delicious.
I received my first .22 squirrel gun from my dad when I was 12 years of age and that firearm became a rite of passage. It was an inexpensive Hawthorne Warrior Model M825 bolt action rifle with an 8 shot clip. I still have it and it will be kept in the family. We shot Federal Monarch ammo, as it was inexpensive but reliable and cost $.50 for a box of 50 shells. I was taught hunter education, safety and ethics at an early age. It was part of “growing up” back in the days when things were a lot simpler! But I digress!
The gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) and the fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) are our largest squirrels. Both are considered tree squirrels even though the fox squirrel spends a lot of its time on the ground. The “foxy” colored fox squirrel can weigh up to 2 pounds while the gray squirrel maxes out at 1.5 pounds. Black squirrels are really “melanistic gray squirrels while true “white” squirrels are albinos with pink eyes. Tree squirrels have a very long, bushy tail which aids in balance as they leap from tree to tree. A normal litter size is four young with mating occurring in mid to late winter and again in early summer providing two litters per year. Like all rodents, squirrel’s teeth continue to grow all throughout their lifetime. The exposed soft dentine on the back side of their teeth wear away faster, while gnawing, than the hard enamel on the front of their teeth making their teeth self-sharpening.
The noisy little red squirrel (Tamiascurius hudsonicus), is much smaller than either the gray or fox squirrels, weighing up to 10 ounces. It is very territorial and can at times cause damage to human structures they decide to call home. Gnawing into soffits and roof enclosures to gain entry has been the bane of more than a few home and cottage owners.
The northern flying squirrel (Glaugomys sabrinus) and the southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans) are our smallest tree squirrels and weigh 4-6 ounces. The flying squirrels don’t really fly but glide using the folds of skin which extend between their front and back legs. They have large, black eyes and unlike our other squirrels that are active during daylight hours, the flying squirrels are nocturnal and seldom seen by humans because of this. They will hit birdfeeders at night accounting for mysterious seed loss. I find their fur extremely soft and luxuriant upon touch compared to our other tree squirrels.
The eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) and the least chipmunk (Tamias minimus) are actually considered ground squirrels. The least chipmunk is a bit smaller than the eastern chipmunk but has the same general “chipmunk” look. These lovable animals were the basis for Disney’s “Chip and Dale” cartoon characters which are still favorites today.
The thirteen-lined ground squirrel (Spermophilus tridecemlineatus), often called “striped gopher” and the much rarer Franklin ground squirrel (Spermophilus franklinii) are longer and more slender than chipmunks and as they move about, carry their tail behind them compared to the erect tail-posture of the chipmunks. While the thirteen-lined ground squirrel is solitary, the Franklin ground squirrel lives in colonies. All ground squirrels can be garden pests at times, building burrows up to 20 feet long which will have two entrances. The ground squirrels are true hibernators and will enter its burrow in October to emerge in March or April. The Minnesota Golden Gopher mascot was originally depicted as a line drawing of a thirteen-lined ground squirrel but has since morphed into ‘Goldie” the Minnesota Golden Gopher.
The woodchuck is the largest member of the squirrel family and at times has also been considered a garden pest. It will dig into gardens or under neighboring sheds and enclosures. It is the only member of the squirrel family that has white incisors. The rest all have the orange colored frontal hued dentition. His entire anatomy is well adapted to burrowing life.
The squirrel branch of the animal kingdom is quite a diversified part of nature that has evolved over time into a fantastic, integral part of our family tree for us to enjoy!