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Scavenging Squirrels

In autumn, local squirrels are out and about. Like mice and rats, squirrels are rodents. They belong to a family of animals (Scuridae) that includes tree squirrels, flying squirrels, ground squirrels, groundhogs, and prairie dogs. Here at Knoch Knolls you’re likely to see tree squirrels and chipmunks (ground squirrels).

Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are a common species of tree squirrel in our area but with the loss of mature forests their numbers aren’t as high as they used to be. Although, as the name suggests, these squirrels are predominately gray in color, you may occasionally see white or black individuals – these are color morphs of the same species. Gray squirrels are perhaps best recognized by their large, bushy tails that they use to shelter from sun, wind, and rain. As the fall season progresses, you may notice clumps of leaves and sticks in the high branches of trees. These clumps, also called dreys, are tree squirrel nests where they will shelter from cold winter winds. The best winter shelters, if they can find them, are holes within a tree.

Fox squirrels (Sciurus niger) are the largest species of tree squirrel in our area. They tend to be slower and move less erratically than gray squirrels. Fox squirrels have a brown/gray back with a rusty sheen to it and orange undersides. The orange color is very apparent in their characteristically bushy tails.

Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) are the more common species of ground squirrel in Knoch Knolls Park, although in other parts of our area, more open fields, you might also encounter the more ornate 13-lined ground squirrels (Spermophilus tridecemlineatus). Chipmunks are much smaller than the tree squirrels, with tawny brown fur interrupted by two sets of black and white stripes along their face and body. Although chipmunks can climb trees, you’re more likely to see them on the ground or popping out of the holes that serves as the entrances to their burrows. Since chipmunks are small, you may not always see them. But if you take a walk through Knoch Knolls Park, you’re sure to hear them. When alarmed, chipmunks make a surprisingly loud chirping sound that may be mistaken for birdsong.

One last squirrel found in our area, but rarely seen, is the highly nocturnal Southern Flying Squirrel, Glaucomys volans. They tend to be found in larger woodlands with oaks and hickories. They spend most of their time in the treetops but do forage on the ground and sometimes at bird feeders. They use the extra flap of skin between their front and hind feet to glide from tree to tree.

The reason the Knoch Knolls squirrels are so busy this time of year is that squirrels do not hibernate, or go into a dormant state in the winter season. In order to survive they must have caches of food available to eat all winter. The fox and grey squirrels practice scatter-hoarding, meaning they bury or hide the food they collect in a variety of places. They usually collect and store a lot more food than they will eat during the winter (and sometimes they don’t remember where they buried it), so in the spring new trees will grow from the seeds the squirrels buried the previous autumn. Chipmunks, on the other hand, gather all their food for winter in a central location. Each chipmunk burrow has a “room” specifically for storing food, separate from the sleeping area and latrine. They stay in their underground burrow during the winter, napping and snacking on their cache of nuts and seeds.

In the fall, you will see squirrels and chipmunks gathering acorns and other tree nuts to eat during the winter. These food items are high in fat and calories, meaning the animals have to spend less energy in order to gather high-value food. During the spring and summer, they forage on leaves, berries, and roots/tubers. You may also notice them foraging around (or on) any birdfeeders you have set up around your home.

To learn more about squirrels in Illinois, visit the University of Illinois Extension website.