National Squirrel Appreciation Day

Sciurus niger Eastern Fox Squirrel

Eastern Fox Squirrel

January 21 is National Squirrel Appreciation Day. Christy Hargrove, a wildlife rehabilitator, began the celebration. Mid-winter is a time when food becomes hard to find for our squirrel friends, so she felt that it was a good time to focus some attention (and food) on them.

Michigan has five species of squirrels. Northern and Southern Flying Squirrels (Glaucomys sabrinus and G. volans) are nocturnal and shy. I hear them calling on dark nights and seldom see them. The most reliable way to distinguish the two flying squirrel species is by their teeth. Both species are recorded from Oakland Co., Michigan.

The other three squirrel species are well known and often observed. They are Eastern Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger), the Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) including the Black Squirrel, and the much smaller Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus).

Sciurus niger  Eastern Fox Squirrel

Eastern Fox Squirrel

The Eastern Fox Squirrel is the largest of our Michigan squirrels, 50-56 cm. (20-22 inches) long and weighing between 680 and 1360 grams (1.5 and 3 lbs). It differs from our other squirrels by its size and yellowish brown, with some reddish color. There are some color variations, including individuals that are much paler than normal. I have seen pure white albinos with pink eyes. This species and the Eastern Gray Squirrel both build leafy nests in trees and will use cavities in trees for nesting as well.

Sciurus carolinensis     Eastern Gray Squirrel

Eastern Gray Squirrel grey morph

Sciurus carolinensis  Eastern Fox Squirrel

Eastern Gray Squirrel black morph (Black Squirrel)

Both gray and black squirrels in Michigan are members of a single species, the Eastern Gray Squirrel. Ranging from 41 to 51 cm. (16 to 20 inches) long, and weighing between 340 and 680 grams (.75 and 1.5 lbs), it is slightly smaller than the Eastern Fox Squirrel. The gray morph is dark to pale gray on the back, with a light gray or buff belly. Some of the black morph animals have blond tails or reddish coloring in places. Though they appear very different, the two color morphs are often present in one litter. According to the Animal Diversity Web entry for this species, the black color morph is more common in the northern part of the squirrel’s range. Black animals lose less heat and have a lower basal metabolic rate, which should give them a survival advantage in cold winter temperatures.

We now see many Gray Squirrels in both color morphs in our yard. When we first moved here 22 years ago, there were only Eastern Fox and an occasional Red Squirrel. The Gray Squirrel has spread into the area and become dominant over the Fox, even though it is smaller.

Tamiasciurus hudsonicus Red Squirrel

Red Squirrel

The last squirrel in our area is the Red Squirrel. It is small, 28 to 35 cm. (11 to 14 inches), with a reddish back, white underside and broken white eye-ring. Even though it is smaller, size matters not. It is aggressive, and can and will run off larger squirrels.

Get out and watch squirrels. They are fascinating. One of the Fox Squirrel photos shows a squirrel on a garbage can that contains sunflower seeds. It was pulling on the chain trying to break in. They sprawl out on our deck railings to cool off on a hot day. They fluff up their fur in the cold and hold their tails over their bodies in the rain or snow. They run and jump through the trees. They are just fun to watch. Have a happy NSAD.

Copyright 2014 by Donald Drife

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Michigan’s Spruces (Picea)

Spruces have needles less than 20mm (3/4 inch) long with square cross-sections. They never occur in bunches, just one needle per node. They can be confused with Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) but Firs have needles with flattened cross-sections. If you can roll a needle in your fingertips then it is a spruce.

Balsam Fir and Spruce Needles and Branchlets

Balsam Fir and Spruce Needles and Branchlets

Michigan has two native spruces, Black Spruce (Picea mariana) and White Spruce (P. glauca). Norway Spruce (P. abies) is now naturalized into the state.

Picea mariana branchlets

Black Spruce Branchlets

Picea mariana pegs and cones

Black Spruce pegs and cones

Black Spruce has needles shorter than 16mm (5/8 inch) and densely pubescent, meaning furry, first year branchlets. The needle bases, which sit on a peg-like projection, are difficult to see. These peg-like projections stick out at 90 degrees to the twig. If cones are present, they are about as wide as they are long. In southern Michigan, Black Spruce grows only in cool bogs. North of Bay City, it will also grow in upland forests and interdunal swales. Even in the north, it prefers a damp habitat and often occurs with Tamarack (Larix laricina) and White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis). The common name refers to the dark needles this tree normally has.

Picea glauca needles and cone

White Spruce needles and cone

White Spruce has needles that are normally longer than 16mm (5/8 inch) and hairless first year branchlets. The needle bases are easily seen. The peg-like projections  point forward at approximately 60 degrees from the twig. Cones are two to three times longer than wide. The tree’s native range is north of West Branch. It grows in similar habitats as Black Spruce but will also thrive in drier locations. The common name refers to the waxy layer on the young needles.

Picea abies needles and cone

Norway Spruce needles and cone

The native range of Norway Spruce is central and northern Europe. It is escaping throughout Michigan. The branchlets droop and its cones are large, approximately 130mm (5 inch) long. Norway Spruce is commonly planted and beginning to escape into natural areas. Its needles are stiff and have rows of minute openings properly called stomata.

Picea abies stomata

Norway Spruce stomata

Copyright 2014 by Donald Drife

Webpage Michigan Nature Guy
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