SQUIRREL

A gray squirrel flattens its body against a tree trunk, one of its strategies to avoid its many predators. (Photo/Terry Johnson)

The gray squirrel is a familiar sight throughout Monroe County. We see them in our backyards, walking across power lines spanning roads in downtown Forsyth and searching for food in the woodlands that blanket most of the county. In fact, they are so common we overlook that each day gray squirrels face a deadly threat posed by a host of predators ready to make a squirrel their next meal.

The names of the animals that feed on gray squirrels in this neck of the woods include the likes of coyotes, foxes, dogs, cats, rattlesnakes, gray rat snakes, bobcats, weasels, raccoons, red-tailed hawks, both barred and great horned owls, and even largemouth bass. (A gray squirrel was actually found in the stomach of a largemouth bass.) While most of these predators dine on both adult and young squirrels, raccoons and gray rat snakes prefer to prey upon nestlings.

However, the truth of the matter is humans represent the greatest threat to gray squirrels. Untold numbers of squirrels are killed by motor vehicles racing down our highways. In addition, each year millions of gray squirrels are harvested by hunters.

In order to meet the deadly challenge posed by these skilled predators, this squirrel utilizes a suite of behaviors and physical attributes to foil its enemies.

The gray squirrel views the world in a far different way than humans. It is essentially equipped with sunglasses. Its yellow lenses greatly reduce glare. In addition, its eyesight is the equivalent of a human with red-green colorblindness.  In other words,  it can discern both red and green but not other colors.

We can see objects directly in front of us better than we can those off to the side. Meanwhile, the gray squirrel’s peripheral vision and focal vision are equally fine. This permits a squirrel to spot a predator approaching from its side as well as one approaching directly toward it without having to ever move its head.

If this isn’t enough, the squirrel’s eyes are positioned slightly upwards.  Biologists believe this enables the gray squirrel to go about its business while being able to keep a sharp eye out for raptors flying overhead.

Gray squirrels use camouflage to remain out of sight of would-be predators. As any squirrel hunter can attest, regardless if you hunt squirrels in late summer, autumn or winter, it is difficult to locate a squirrel in the top of a tree. The animal’s grayish to yellowish brown pelage blends in perfectly with the bark of the trees they most often inhabit. This literally makes them impossible to spot unless they move.

Often when a squirrel recognizes it has been spotted it will quickly scoot to the backside of a tree and then peek around the trunk to see if a predator is still close by. While hunting I have often seen a squirrel scamper around to the backside of the tree to avoid danger. When I would walk around the tree trying to relocate it, the squirrel would simply crawl around to the side from whence he came.

Gray squirrels will also lie motionless atop a branch with only their feet and tail hanging down. In some instances, they will simply flatten their bodies against the trunk of a tree and remain motionless until a predator moves on.

The gray squirrel also takes full advantage of its athletic ability. If it is surprised while foraging on the ground, it can run away from danger at a speed of 14 mph. Once it reaches a tree, it can then scamper up the tree at 12 mph.

Gray squirrels are also great jumpers. They can leap six feet or more from one branch or tree to another. They can also vault a distance of 16 feet when dropping down from one limb to another. In addition a squirrel can spring vertically from the ground at least five feet high. To put the accomplishment in perspective, if we had this ability, we could leap upward from a sidewalk to the top of a five-story building.

Although they are not social animals, gray squirrels will alert other squirrels when they detect approaching danger. This is accomplished by making a variety of sounds, such as barks, squalls and other loud noises. The gray squirrel is even capable of producing a catlike call (This is the reason gray squirrels are often referred to as cat squirrels).

The gray squirrel also uses its tail as a warning flag. Tail waving often accompanies a barrage of warning sounds. It should be noted portions of a gray squirrel’s tail will often snap-off when grabbed by a predators. However, unlike reptiles, which also possess this ability, its tail does not grow back. Some zoologists feel gray squirrels will rapidly move their tails to confuse would-be predators. The theory is a snake or other predator might mistake the tail for an aggressive animal.

I think you would agree gray squirrels have an impressive array of weapons at their disposal to keep predators from eating them. Based on the number of squirrels I see, it would appear that these methods are quite successful. Now if gray squirrels ever figure out how to avoid being hit by cars and trucks, we might be overrun with these fascinating wildlife neighbors.

Terry Johnson is retired Program Manager of the Georgia Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program. He has written the informative column ‘Monroe Outdoors’ for the Reporter for many years. His book, “A Journey to Discovery,” is available at The Reporter. Email him at tjwoodduck@bellsouth.net.