Out & about: The gray way

Gray squirrels are the most common squirrels in Pennsylvania. You can find them in your backyard, parks and remote forests.

As I stood under the large oak tree I could see a fuzzy, silver tail blowing in the wind from the branch 30 feet above me. Although I couldn’t see what it was attached to, I knew it was one of Pennsylvania’s tree-dwelling mammals, an Eastern Gray squirrel. It was sitting on the branch horizontally, with its back end up against the trunk, a favorite position of this common animal. As I walked a bit further, I heard things hitting the dry leaves on the ground ahead of me, then noticed the silvery-looking critter enjoying a large walnut.

NATURAL HISTORY

Eastern Gray squirrels are classified as rodents and can be found throughout Pennsylvania. Their range also extends south to Florida, west to Texas and includes much of eastern Canada. In the Keystone State, they’re one of five squirrel species that can be found here, and the most common. The others include the Red squirrel, Fox squirrel, Northern Flying squirrel and Southern Flying squirrel. The color of Gray squirrels can vary greatly, but most are silvery gray, with white on the underside and a silver, bushy tail with streaks of black in it. They may also show some rusty, brown coloration and even have an all-black phase. The black-colored ones (melanism) are pretty uncommon and usually only found in Pennsylvania’s north central counties, and in regions further north.

Gray squirrels are very adaptable and can thrive in city parks, suburban neighborhoods and large forests. They prefer to live in areas with deciduous trees, especially mast-producing species like oaks, hickories and walnuts, where they eat the nuts of these trees. They’ll also dine on berries and corn, and in the spring can be seen balancing on the tips of tree branches eating the fresh, new leaf buds. Gray squirrels will also use these same trees to build nests in the branches. These nests are not like bird nests, but more of a large clump of dried leaves with a cavity in the middle, where 4-6 babies are born in late winter or early spring. In addition, Gray squirrels may bear a second litter in the summer, usually in July or August.

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BACKYARD RAIDERS

There are very people who feed birds that have not had encounters with Gray squirrels. Love them, despise them, respect them, laugh at them, or in our case, send the hounds after them! Our two beagles are our last line of defense against these intelligent “backyard birdseed thieves.” The two dogs are so conditioned to chasing these critters that we simply have to look out the back window, quietly mumble the “S-word” in their direction, and they shoot downstairs toward the back door, like cheetahs pursuing gazelles across the African Plains!

As much as I get frustrated watching them sneak toward our expensive black oil sunflower seeds, I do admit that I’m constantly amazed how they continue to find new strategies for getting the seeds from our birdfeeders! Like many others, I’ve tried the “squirrel-proof” feeders with no success and attempted to hang them or mount them in areas that would seem too difficult for them to access the feeders, but they always find a way! I’ve seen them leap from five feet away, and several feet straight up from the ground, hang upside down and even stretch out the full length of their bodies-front feet grabbing the feeder and back feet desperately clinging to a branch. They’re fast, creative and smart little tree critters!

Gray squirrels are clever, adaptable animals. Whether they’re in your backyard plotting ways to raid your bird feeders, building nests high in the canopy of mountain forest, or burying acorns that become tomorrow’s trees in the local park, the only way they know to live, is the Gray Way!