Fox Squirrel, Sciurus niger
Photo above: Fox squirrel sitting on the railing of the bridge at La Mesa Park, 11/6/22, 3:12pm, weather: cloudy. I saw the squirrel sitting there as I walked up to the bridge, and expected it to run away as I approached, especially since walking on the bridge causes noise and vibration. However, it stayed where it was until a group of children with bikes went ahead of me on the bridge and caused it to run off down a branch.
DIET: Omnivorous- acorns and other nuts, fruit, bird eggs, insects, carrion, and much else.
PREDATORS: Hawks, owls, bobcats, coyotes, and for the young, sometimes snakes.
HABITAT/RANGE: Oak and other woodlands; parks; neighborhoods. Current range includes the eastern and central US, northern Mexico, and southern Canada, as well as some populated areas on the West Coast (like SB).
CONSERVATION STATUS: Least concern.
WHERE TO OBSERVE IN SB: Parks, open spaces, and neighborhoods, especially those with a lot of oak trees, like the Douglas Family Preserve. Fox squirrels have been expanding their range in SB, and may even be seen in more populated areas like downtown.
Fox squirrels are an increasingly common sight in Santa Barbara, from the oak woodlands of the local open spaces to the courtyards of downtown. They were introduced to California in the early 1900s to entertain the residents of a retirement home, and since then they have learned to thrive in an environment of urbanization and habitat fragmentation.
Fox squirrels have the size and appearance of a stereotypical, bushy-tailed "tree squirrel," similar to our other local (and native) tree squirrel, the Western Gray squirrel. However, there are several ways to differentiate the two. Fox squirrels have a reddish tint to their fur, as opposed to the solid gray and white of their native counterpart. This is especially apparent on the underside of their body. Additionally, fox squirrels are slightly smaller (about 23 inches long, including tail) and their tails may not be as bushy. Sources: Animal Diversity Web, C.A. Clark (Bay Nature), V. Hayes (SB Independent).
The fox squirrel is in the genus Sciurus, which represents the tree squirrels (including gray squirrels), and shares a family (Sciuridae) with other, more distantly related types of squirrels, such as ground squirrels and marmots. The squirrel family is part of the order Rodentia, the rodents, classified by their specialized gnawing teeth.
Fox squirrels are relative newcomers to this area. They are native to the Eastern half of the US, hence their alternative name "Eastern fox squirrel", and came to California in 1904 via a deliberate introduction to the grounds of a veterans' retirement home in Los Angeles. They soon spread outward, first to the broader LA metropolitan area, and then to other locations in Southern California, including Ventura in the 1930s. In some cases, their spread was accelerated by people continuing to relocate them to new areas, such as the UC Berkeley campus. Today, they inhabit a variety of urban and suburban areas in CA, including Santa Barbara. They have adapted to thrive in populated environments that are less appealing to the native gray squirrels, and as a result, if you see a squirrel in your neighborhood in Santa Barbara, it's likely a fox squirrel.
Fox squirrels, as one might expect from their classification with the tree squirrels, spend most of their time in trees (this is referred to as being an arboreal species). Trees provide a foraging ground for acorns, fruits, and other food sources, and also serve as a place to nest and a way to escape from predators. Fox squirrels are great at climbing, thanks to adaptations like sharp gripping claws and a long tail for balance. They are mainly active during the day.
Fox squirrels are omnivores, feeding mainly on nuts (such as acorns) and other plant matter, but also supplementing their diet with bird eggs and young, insects (such as the gall insects that create growths on tree branches), and other animal-based food sources. Many of these sources can be found within trees, and the squirrel also may scavenge for other ones, like carrion, at ground level. Sometimes the squirrel stores acorns in the ground for later, and the ones it doesn't come back for may germinate.
The ideal nest for a squirrel to sleep and raise its young is an enclosed, protected area like a tree cavity (such as those created by woodpeckers) or even a manmade structure like a chimney. However, if a squirrel can't find one of those spaces, it will build a stick nest called a drey. Live, green plant material is woven around the branches near the top of a tree to create a roughly round nest with a cavity inside. The nest becomes stronger when the plant material it is made from dries up and hardens in place.
While fox squirrels can reproduce at any time of year, they mainly do so within one of 2 intervals, November-February and April-July. The young are born blind and without fur, and are cared for by the mother. They leave the nest at around 12 weeks old.
Fox squirrels don't tend to gather in groups, and can even be territorial, especially while raising young. However, they do help each other stay safe by giving alarm calls to warn of predators. They also communicate with a range of other sounds, including a "scolding" chatter when their territory has been invaded, and with their tails, which they may swish back and forth as a sign of aggression or territoriality.
Coexisting with Squirrels In Your Backyard
In recent years, some Santa Barbara residents (including the author of this site) have noticed squirrels coming to neighborhoods where they weren't seen before. A squirrel or two in your yard usually won't pose much of a problem, but if squirrels have been eating fruit off of your trees, taking over your birdfeeder, or causing other conflict, here are some tips for coexisting with them.
Fruit trees tend to attract many backyard animals, and you may see this as a problem or a benefit depending on whether you have enough fruit to share and whether the animals seem to be overpopulating in your yard as a result. If you don't want squirrels (or other rodents) eating your fruit, try attaching a 2-foot ring of sheet metal to the trunk, 6 feet up, and trimming away other vegetation that may provide a path into the tree canopy. Harvest fruit as soon as it ripens, and pick up any fallen fruit off the ground.
Birdfeeders have pros and cons, so consider whether you need one in the first place or whether you can attract your favorite birds with native food-producing plants instead. If you do put up a birdfeeder, choose one specifically designed to keep out squirrels. These types are widely available and may include a conical "baffle" that prevents climbing or a mechanism that closes the birdfeeder if an animal heavier than a bird perches on it. Squirrels are more intelligent than you may think, so you will likely have to switch up your strategies when they find ways to get around your barriers. Some types of birdseed, such as Niger thistle, are also less appealing to squirrels in the first place.
If you have a chimney, install an approved mesh chimney cap to keep wildlife from getting in. Don't use materials that aren't specifically made for putting on a chimney, as this is a fire hazard.
It's generally not a good idea to relocate "problem" wildlife out of your property with livetraps. While it may seem humane, animals can actually suffer an early death from predators or other causes when they find themselves in an unfamiliar environment. Additionally, if you do this with a fox squirrel and it does survive, you may be artificially expanding the range of the species, which can harm native wildlife that are not used to fox squirrels. Instead of focusing on removing an individual squirrel from your yard, which won't solve your problem anyways (another one will likely take up residence in its place), focus on whatever is attracting the squirrel to your yard.
Similar to other animals that eat and store acorns, like jays and woodpeckers, fox squirrels play a role in seed dispersal because some of the acorns they forget about will sprout into trees. They also serve as an important food source for raptors and other predators.
As an introduced species, fox squirrels may negatively impact the native Western Gray squirrels by competing with them for food and territory. However, it is unclear whether declining populations of gray squirrels in some areas of California are really due to increasing fox squirrel numbers, or if it's just a product of habitat loss and fragmentation. While gray squirrels prefer to feed on native plants and need certain types of habitat to thrive- types that are being encroached on by development- fox squirrels are much more versatile and can adapt to an urbanizing environment by making use of new food and shelter sources. This gives the appearance that fox squirrels are replacing gray squirrels, even if the real problem is habitat loss. Scientists are currently doing more research to determine the exact ecological relationships between fox and gray squirrels in California.
How to Observe Fox Squirrels
While you might have to go to the foothills to see a gray squirrel, fox squirrels are plentiful all around town, making for easy observation. For the best chance at seeing one if you don't have them in your own yard, go to a public park or open space with a lot of oak trees, especially in the fall when acorns are ripe. The author of this website has seen a lot of them at the Douglas Family Preserve and Lake Los Carneros, but you likely don't have to go much further than your own neighborhood to find one.