by Kyle Sweet, The Sanctuary Golf Club, Florida Master Naturalist
The Eastern Gray Squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis, also known as just the Gray Squirrel, is native to eastern North America. The genus ( Sciurus ) is derived from two Greek words, Skia meaning shadow and Oura, meaning tail. This name alludes to the squirrel sitting in the shadow of its tail. The species ( Carolinensis ) refers to the Carolinas, where it was first recorded.
The Eastern gray squirrel usually has predominantly gray fur but can also take on a brownish color. Regardless, it always has a white underside. Often, squirrels can look larger or smaller based on the thickness of their fur, which is season dependent. The size of the gray squirrel is quite consistent and there is not a size difference between male and female squirrels. The adult size of both ranges from 9” – 12” in length and only weigh around a pound, sometimes slightly more depending on the season and diet.
They are referred to as scatter-hoarders and hoard food in numerous small caches to use later. Just one squirrel can make thousands of caches each season and thanks to an excellent memory and keen sense of smell, they are able to retrieve food from these caches within a short time, which can be just hours or days. In some cases, they won’t retrieve from the cashes for several months.
They’re sneaky! To prevent other animals from retrieving their food, they will just pretend to bury it if they feel that they are being watched, while all the while concealing the food in their mouth. To prevent having to do this too often, they often hide behind vegetation when burying food or hide up high in the trees, stashing food in cracks or openings in the tree, out of the sight of other animals.
A squirrel nest is known as a drey and is typically made in the forks of tree branches. The nest consists of dried leaves and twigs and is often insulated with moss, dried grass or feathers. While I was growing up in central Florida amongst majestic Live Oaks, it was very common to see gray squirrels collecting spanish moss during nesting season. Squirrel dreys basically resembled large moss and twig balls high above in the trees. In these nests, the squirrels can breed twice a year. In Florida, during the months of December to February and May to June. In more northern states this can be delayed due their colder temperatures. Normally, four hairless young are born in each litter following a gestation period of 45 days.
They eat a range of foods such as tree bark, plant buds, berries, seeds and all types of nuts. Their eating habits ca be damaging to trees as they will tear the bark of the tree and eat the soft cambial tissue beneath. For humans, of course they can be quite a nuisance when their diet shifts to grabbing delicacies such as corn, tomatoes and strawberries from gardens. Often, deterrents need to be put in place so squirrels don’t eat everything in the garden.
In Britain, the Eastern Gray Squirrel is considered invasive. Records indicate that they were introduced there in the late 1800’s and since that time have almost entirely displaced the native Red Squirrels of Britain. Their dominance over the Red Squirrel is in size and their ability to store more fat to make it through winter conditions. They also produce more young each year and are susceptible to the squirrelpox virus, which is carried by the eastern gray squirrel and transmitted to the red squirrel.
It seems as though Gray squirrels are everywhere in the east, officially having a range encompassing the half of North America, from Ontario south to Texas, over to Florida and north to Quebec. That’s a huge area….but are they on Sanibel?? Personally, I have told many people that they aren’t, but about a year ago near Billy’s Bikes on Periwinkle I was proven wrong when I saw one scurrying up a tree, leaping from one branch to another. I spoke the staff at Sanibel Natural Resources and they verified that they have been spotted in recent years at the east end of the island. They are there, but not in the populations like you’d expect just over the causeway in Fort Myers. The Eastern Gray Squirrel, a very common animal of the southeast yet uncommon critter of the islands. Good luck out there spotting one!!