At some point, most of us have been queried with the somewhat cheesy childhood riddle, "What's black, white and red all over?" Stock responses, of course, are newspapers, zebras with sunburn and road-killed skunks. But, hey, might there be an accurate and more realistic response to the silly riddlers who pose this question?
Consider the fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), the most colorful tree squirrel in the Western Hemisphere and the most variably colored mammal in North America.
Fox squirrels are widely distributed across the eastern United States and Canada and are found locally throughout most of the Southeast. In most of their range, fox squirrels typically have brownish, reddish, orange, or grizzled tan upper parts with a grizzled or black nose and no white markings on the head or feet.
In the Southeast they usually feature gray, silver, or grizzled upper markings (sometimes with a reddish cast), especially on the legs and tail. Most fox squirrels in South Georgia, south Alabama and north Florida have black markings on the head, with white or gray on their noses, ears and feet.
According to wildlife biologist John Powers, the color patterns of fox squirrels are produced by a highly variable mix of reddish, black, white and silver hairs. The upper parts of their bodies and tails are usually salt-and-pepper gray, often with a rusty shading. This reddish cast seems to be more common in northern and western portions of the region, while fox squirrels of the Coastal Plain are more commonly light gray or occasionally almost silver in appearance. The bellies of fox squirrels vary from cream-colored to reddish orange.
"Differences among individual fox squirrels may be extreme," Powers said. "Many combinations of colors exist and it seems that no two fox squirrels are exactly alike. One relatively constant characteristic is the presence of the black facial mask and the white-tipped nose and ears. Melanistic (all-black) fox squirrels occur throughout the species' range, but are most common in southern regions. True albino individuals occur as well, but are rare in all but a few largely protected, mostly urban populations."
Fox squirrels, Powers explained, are the largest tree squirrels in the Western Hemisphere, with an overall heavy-bodied look and long bushy tails. A fox squirrel's head is somewhat blocky in appearance, with rounded, stubby-looking ears.
"Adult fox squirrels may reach two and a half feet in length and sometimes weigh as much as three pounds," he said. "They are typically solitary animals, rarely found in groups except during breeding chases and in areas containing a concentrated food supply. They are not territorial as a rule, but when circumstances bring them together, dominant hierarchies or 'pecking orders' are quickly established. Most of the time, though, fox squirrels simply avoid or ignore each other."
In the Deep South, litters of two to five young fox squirrels are born from late January through March with second litters produced in July and August. Gestation is about 44 days. Yearling females breed at about ten months of age and generally skip a breeding period before producing a second litter. Older females in good physical condition most often breed twice each year when food supplies are good. Almost all summer litters are raised in leaf nests in the branches of trees, as are many winter/spring young in the southernmost portion of the range.
Tree hollows (when available) are used more commonly for brood rearing and shelter during the winter in more northern reaches of the region.
"Fox squirrels, throughout their range, eat a variety of wild foods," said Powers, "including acorns, nuts, seeds, fleshy fruits, buds, flowers, bird eggs, insects, tubers, roots and fungi. Pine seeds are a favorite food during the limited time they are available (late summer), while hard mast is of critical importance during fall and winter. They are opportunistic feeders at all times. Most of their water is obtained from eating succulent vegetation and fruits or by licking dew from leaves, but during periods of extreme drought surface water may become necessary for survival. Calcium and other minerals that they don't normally get from vegetable foods are supplied by gnawing bones and shed antlers or by eating soil."
Simple observation reveals that fox squirrel habitat varies considerably both locally and regionally. Throughout the western, Midwestern, northeastern and central portions of their range, these squirrels are most often found in relatively small or narrow stands of mature hardwoods with little understory vegetation and incomplete canopy closure. Fox squirrels living in the Atlantic and Gulf Coast regions are known to occupy virtually all diverse forest habitats, but are most strongly associated with mature, fire-maintained pine forests.
"Research in the Coastal Plain region indicates that while fox squirrels may spend much of their time in pine stands, hardwood habitats adjacent to or within these areas may be more heavily used than expected, based on their limited availability," Powers said. "This relatively intense use of hardwood habitats likely points to their importance to fox squirrels for both food and cover."
The striking appearance and large size of the fox squirrel, coupled with its habit of being more active than the gray squirrel during midday hours, makes this interesting rodent one of our region's most easily observed and fascinating wildlife species. Next time you find yourself in fox squirrel territory, keep a close eye out for some of those individual squirrels that somehow don't quite seem to fit in. Who knows? Perhaps you'll spy one that truly is "black, white and red all over."