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Tree Squirrels

There are three tree squirrel species commonly found in West Virginia: the red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) and eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger). Of these, the eastern gray squirrel and eastern fox squirrel are common small game species found throughout the state. The red squirrel is most commonly found within the more coniferous forests in the eastern portion of the state.

Eastern Gray Squirrel

Eastern gray squirrel on a table.

The eastern gray squirrel is gray on its head and back, and white on its belly. Its ears are relatively short and lack any tuft. It has a flattened, bushy tail. The hairs on the tail are brown at the base, blackish near the middle and tipped with silvery gray. Eastern gray squirrels are found in deciduous and mixed woodlands throughout West Virginia.

They are active during the day (diurnal) with activity peaks at dawn and late afternoon. They are active throughout the year, limiting feeding activity to the warmest parts of the day during extreme winter conditions. They are arboreal (found in trees), but spend much of their time foraging on the ground for hard mast, such as acorns, beechnuts and hickory nuts, seeds, such as pine nuts and samaras, buds, fruits and agricultural crops.

Eastern gray squirrels will cache food by burying and stashing, then locate these by smell and memory during winter months. Eastern gray squirrels will build nests in tree cavities, but also will build nests of leaves and twigs in tree crowns or crooks of tree limbs. They can have one to two litters per year with an average litter size of two to three pups.

Eastern Fox Squirrel

Eastern fox squirrel on a lawn.

The eastern fox squirrel is larger than the eastern gray squirrel. It is rusty brown above and tan below with a bushy, rusty tail. The eastern fox squirrel can exhibit extreme color variation throughout its range. In West Virginia, the most common color variation is rusty brown, however individuals that are gray with a black face occur in Virginia and Maryland. More coastal populations in Virginia and the Carolinas can be gray with a black head and feet and a white belly.

Similar to the eastern gray squirrel, the eastern fox squirrel is diurnal, but most active in the morning and late afternoon. Eastern fox squirrels also feed on hard mast, seeds, buds, fruits and agricultural crops. They also are active year-round, building nests in cavities or building leaf nests in the canopy. They, too, can have one to two litters per year with two to three pups per litter.

Red Squirrel

A red squirrel on a branch.

The red squirrel is smaller than the eastern gray squirrel and eastern fox squirrel and reddish above and whitish below in color. The red squirrel will have long tufts of hair on their ears during the winter months. Red squirrels typically inhabit coniferous forests and mixed forests throughout the eastern portion of the state.

Similar to the eastern gray squirrel and eastern fox squirrel, the red squirrel is diurnal, active all year and builds nests in cavities or tree crowns. The red squirrel feeds on conifer seeds, fungi, acorns and occasionally, bird eggs. It also can have one to two litters per year with two to four young per litter.

Squirrel Damage

Squirrel populations can fluctuate annually based on available food resources. Forested habitats provide tree squirrels with the food and cover they require. Nevertheless, tree squirrels have nested in attics or barns, and close contact with human development has resulted in property and crop damage.

Squirrels can cause damage to trees in urban areas, forests and orchards by chewing or gnawing bark on branches and trunks. They frequently chew through lines used in maple syrup production. Squirrels may chew holes in domestic structures, such as attics and barns, and take up residence. However, most squirrel complaints are the result of tree squirrels disturbing bird feeders.

Squirrel Damage Management

The eastern gray and eastern fox squirrels are considered a game species and can be hunted during the regulated small game hunting season. Squirrels can be easily trapped and euthanized, but a landowner must obtain a damage permit from West Virginia Division of Natural Resources to trap squirrels. Remember, it is illegal to relocate wildlife, so landowners cannot just catch squirrels and release them down the road.

Fix or cover any holes or access points that squirrels can use to enter a house or building, making sure the squirrels are absent so as not to trap them inside. Trim back any limbs or trees to 6 to 8 feet away from any buildings to prevent squirrels from jumping onto roofs.

Place bird feeders away from any trees or wires that may give squirrels access to feeders. Construct squirrel barriers on any feeders to prevent access from the ground.

Squirrel damage in yards, forests or orchards is often difficult to manage. Consider trimming back trees near orchards or gardens to prevent easy access to property. During population explosions, new squirrels quickly replace those that are removed making management a continual process. Metal flashing can be wrapped around tree trunks to prevent squirrels from climbing up into trees, but remember to trim back limbs from adjacent tree to prevent squirrels from jumping from neighboring trees.

Author: Sheldon Owen, WVU Extension Wildlife Specialist 
Last Reviewed: March 2019