The gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) was one of the most populous species of wildlife in Ohio at the time of settlement. Gray squirrels had extensive habitat in the state taking advantage of the widespread forest in Ohio. Early historical records speak of gray squirrel populations so dense that "...it took a month for an army of squirrels to pass." In fact, gray squirrels disrupted early agricultural efforts in the state to such an extent that Ohio law required each taxpayer to turn in a quota of squirrel skins along with his tax payment. But, as the human population grew and more land was cleared, elimination practices continued and gray squirrel numbers begin to dwindle. By 1885, hunting laws were enacted restricting the hunting seasons and bag limits for the gray squirrel.
As its name indicates, the gray squirrel is gray in color. These gray hairs may have orange tips that will give the animal a reddish cast. Its belly is more of a grayish-white or rusty color. Many gray squirrels have a white trim on the back of their ears and a straw-colored ring around their eyes.
Gray squirrels are polygamous breeders. They breed during December-January and May-June. Gestation lasts 44 days and young are born February-March and July-August. Litters consist of 2-3 young. Gray squirrels typically produce 1-2 litters per year.
Gray squirrels running up and down and around trees is thought to be a part of the courtship ritual. The male will have no role in rearing the young. Young squirrels are reared in leaf nests, dens and occasionally birdhouses. When they are born, the young have no teeth or fur, and their eyes and ears are tightly shut. Young squirrels are slow maturing- their eyes won't open for about 36 days, it will be nearly seven weeks before they begin to sample solid foods, like greens and bark, and approximately 10 weeks before they venture out of the nest onto the ground. Between 14 and 15 weeks, gray squirrels are mature enough to venture out and live independently; however, it is not unusual for litters to stay together for close to nine months. Gray squirrels are capable of reproducing within months after their own birth; males reach breeding age at 9 to 11 months and females at six to eight months.
Habitat & Behavior
Gray squirrels prefer large expanses of wooded areas of hardwood trees. Timber management practices that create stands of middle-aged and mature trees provide the squirrel the most food and den sites.
Gray squirrels will take shelter in leaf nests they have constructed or in tree dens. Leaf nests are made of twigs, leaves and sometimes grasses and scraps of paper and cloth. They are usually one to two feet in diameter with an interior cavity of four to five inches. The mass of leaves at the top of older trees in your backyard that is revealed in the fall when trees are bare is a squirrel nest. Gray squirrels are more social than their fox and red cousins; several gray squirrels may share a shelter nest. Cavities are lined with leaves.
Gray squirrels typically eat nuts, seeds and fruits of hickory, beech, oak, black walnut, tulip tree, sugar maple, flowering dogwood, buckeye, wild grape, pawpaw, persimmon, butternut, black cherry and a variety of 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.