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by Valerie

December, 2008

Eastern Fox Squirrel

eastern fox squirrel

Among the few mammals that spend time in our backyard, the eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) reigns supreme. While the baby shown in the photo is cute, these animals are also called roof rats by people who are not fond of the rodents' destructive habits. Squirrels are not closely related to rats, but belong to the same family as prairie dogs, chipmunks, and marmots. The fox squirrel is the largest of the American tree squirrels. Although the species can come in a variety of colors, from gray to black, the ones here in Austin are almost all a reddish gray color, with orange bellies. They are heavy animals when full grown, easily deduced by the loud sound they make when jumping onto our roof.

Squirrels have teeth made for constant gnawing, and this is what makes them a nuisance. They have frequently chewed on our house, as well as girding the upper limbs of several previously nice-looking red oak trees. Having 15 feet of tree crown fall during a storm because it was killed by squirrels does not endear the beasts. Squirrels also cause problems when they gain access to attics and set up housekeeping. They are very likely to damage insulation and wiring, and they need to be removed and their entry holes blocked.

The list of problems caused by squirrels also includes eating fruits and nuts off of trees (especially pecans), digging up plants in gardens, making holes in sod and stealing seed from bird feeders. It is rather amusing to peruse the various essays available on the web, which range from "how to attract squirrels" to "how to solve squirrel problems." People often have strong opinions one way or the other.

Their destructive habits aside, squirrels are awfully fun to watch. They have adapted well to an urban environment, if you don't count the number hit on roads, and are diurnal and so easily observed in a casual way. In spite of a their drawbacks, one might as well learn to live with squirrels. Even if they were to be removed by trapping, more would move into the unoccupied territory, so we might as well just enjoy watching them.

(More information on fox squirrels is available in "larvalbug's garden.")

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