The fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) is one of four squirrel species in Ohio; gray, red, and flying squirrels are the other three. Of the four, the fox squirrel is the largest. Fox squirrels were not originally inhabitants of Ohio. The extensive, heavily wooded forest of pre-settlement Ohio was not their preferred habitat. Only when settlement cleared some of the dense woods away and provided open areas and fewer dense woodlots did the fox squirrel start to make Ohio home, moving into the area from the geographical Midwest prairie edge.
The fox squirrel is much more orange in appearance than the gray squirrel with which it is sometimes confused. Its body is a yellowish- gray with reddish-yellow cheeks, face, and feet. The belly is pale yellow to orange in color. Tufts behind the ears and the tips of its tail are yellowish-brown. The tail itself is a reddish-orange with a mixture of dark gray or black hairs throughout.
Male fox squirrels initiate the chase of the female that leads to mating. Fox squirrels are polygamous, meaning the male will mate with more than one female. Peak breeding activity occurs both December-February and May-July. Gestation lasts 44 days and young are born February-April and June-August. Litter sizes range from 2-5 young; 3 is average.
The male will play no role in rearing the young. The young are born blind and will rely on their mother’s milk for at least the first five weeks of life--this could be significantly longer as young fox squirrels generally don’t leave the nest to forage on the ground until they are about three months old.
Fox squirrels have 1 or 2 litters per year. Multiple litters are usually produced by females 2+ years old.
Habitat & Behavior
The primary range of the fox squirrel is in the woodlot country of agricultural western Ohio. These woodlots are 10 to 20 acres in size with a sparse understory and separated from one another by large acreages of agricultural croplands. Fox squirrels make use of hickory, oak, beech, black walnut, maple, elm, and buckeye trees for food and shelter. Timber management practices that create broken stands of middle-aged and mature trees provide the needed den and food sites for fox squirrels.
Like gray squirrels, fox squirrels use two types of nests: leaf and den. Leaf nests are constructed from leaves and twigs and are located in the crotches of tree branches. Dens are formed in hollow tree trunks or branches. Nests are used for shelter and rearing young.
Typical foods include nuts of hickory, oak, and beech; fruits of blackberry, dogwood, wild cherry, and wild grape; corn; buds of maple, elm and willow; and insects.
Research & Surveys
Fox squirrels commonly occur in woodlots bordering agricultural fields and mature forests adjacent to rivers and streams throughout central and western Ohio. Gray squirrels predominate in the oak-hickory forests of eastern and southern Ohio but are also common in urban and suburban parks throughout the state. Gray squirrel populations are therefore more dependent upon hard mast resources such as acorns. Gray squirrel winter survival and spring reproduction rates are closely tied to the mast crop levels of the previous fall. Fox squirrel populations in agricultural landscapes make use of row crops such as corn and are less impacted by annual variation in hard mast.
Squirrels were pursued by an estimated 76,000 Ohio hunters during the 2018–19 season. On average, Ohio squirrel hunters spent 6.8 days afield and harvested 3.2 fox squirrels and 3.2 gray squirrels per hunter last year. Squirrel hunter success rates have been stable since 2013, suggesting stability in Ohio’s populations of fox squirrel and gray squirrel in recent years.