Did you know that Ohio is home to four different species of squirrels? While most people are familiar with the Eastern Gray and Fox squirrels, Ohio is also home to Red and Flying squirrels.
The Eastern Gray Squirrel, or Sciurus carolinensis, is Ohio’s ubiquitous squirrel species. This particular squirrel is usually gray in color with a grayish-white or rusty colored belly; it prefers large expanses of wooded areas containing hardwood trees. However, they are equally at home in Ohio’s parks and residential areas (sometimes becoming a nuisance to humans with their gnawing and nesting habits).
On Sept. 11, 1803, the Lewis and Clark Expedition passed down the Ohio River and entered the “long reach” in the river downstream of present-day Sardis. Captain Meriwether Lewis reported in his journal observing multitudes of squirrels migrating across the Ohio River, and that his dog, Seaman, a Newfoundland, would catch the squirrels in his mouth, kill them, and bring them back to the boat.
“They wer fat and I thought them when fryed a pleasent food – many of these squirrils wer black,” he reported – demonstrating perhaps that observation and leadership, and not necessarily spelling, were his strong suits. These would be Gray Squirrels which, despite their name, may be melanistic, or black in color.
Although such squirrel “migrations” are not so common these days, early settlers reported “armies” of squirrels in numbers so great it took a month for them to pass, and Ohio law even required each taxpayer to submit a quota of squirrel skins along with his tax payment.
In those days it was reported that the eastern hardwood forest was so vast that a squirrel could travel from the Appalachian Mountains west to the Mississippi River and never have to touch the ground. However, destruction of Ohio’s hardwood forests and subsistence hunting probably took a greater toll on Ohio’s Gray Squirrels than the “squirrel tax,” so much that by 1885 the first squirrel hunting seasons and bag limits were enacted to protect them.
At Ohio University in Athens, the resident Gray Squirrels have taken on a near celebrity status. According to some reports the squirrels that inhabit the university and surrounding environs are descendants of squirrels from Harvard University that were introduced to campus in 1908. No doubt this contributed in part to Ohio’s informal moniker as “Harvard on the Hocking.”
OU’s squirrels even have their own Twitter account, and a tongue-in-cheek article once described them as a distinct Ivy League subspecies evolved from generations of eating pizza and living in close proximity to students. With apologies to Rufus, perhaps the Gray Squirrel would be a more appropriate mascot for Ohio’s first university.
The larger Fox Squirrel is not an original habitant of Ohio; it was only after Ohio was settled and most of the woods cleared away that the Fox Squirrel moved into Ohio. Fox Squirrels are the largest Ohio squirrel and are commonly called red squirrels – not to be confused with actual Red Squirrels, which are a distinctly different species.
Fox Squirrels appear mostly orangish in color with a pale yellow to orangish belly. Their tails are mostly reddish-orange. The Fox Squirrel prefers woodlots in agricultural areas, however both Gray and Fox squirrels can be found living in close proximity to each other. Both species use leaf nests and den nests in hollow trunks or branches.
The much-smaller Red Squirrel is less common in the southeastern part of the state and is associated with coniferous forests. As its name suggests, it is mostly reddish in color. It is somewhat larger than a chipmunk, but smaller than the Gray Squirrel.
Red, gray (and black), and fox squirrels are legal and popular game animals in Ohio. Squirrel season begins Sept. 1 and continues through Jan. 31, 2019, with hunting hours 30 minutes before sunrise to sunset. Squirrel season is closed during the deer gun season from Nov. 26 – Dec. 2. The daily bag limit is six squirrels.
Common squirrel hunting implements include shotguns, .410-caliber through 12-gauge, with high-powered loads of #4, #5, or #6 shot. Hunters should use modified or full-choked barrels to hit the squirrels hiding amongst the leaves in the top of trees. Later in the season, rimfire rifles (generally chambered in 22 Long Rifle) are a good choice to take squirrels at longer ranges. For safety’s sake, shots should be limited to those squirrels on the ground or against the base of large trees.
Ohio’s most populous squirrel species? The Southern Flying Squirrel. It is the most common squirrel in Ohio, but because it is strictly nocturnal and seldom seen, most people don’t realize they are surrounded by these secretive creatures.
Jim Freeman is the wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District. His column, In the Open, generally appears every other weekend. He can be contacted weekdays at 740-992-4282 or at email@example.com