Wildlife: Color variations cause confusion in squirrel ID

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Love them or hate them, everyone knows squirrels. Generally, hunters and wildlife watchers like squirrels. Backyard birders often disdain them because they eat too much bird seed.

"Squirrels," however, is a generic term. I use it here to refer to the tree-dwelling game species gray, fox and red squirrels.

Confusing the issue just a bit, the state Game Commission also lists "black squirrels" in its hunting regulations. And though black colored squirrels occur in Pennsylvania, they are not a distinct species. Black squirrels are a genetic form, or "morph," that can occur in gray and fox squirrels. Just as eastern screech-owls have red and gray morphs, so do gray and fox squirrels have black morphs. Same species, different forms.

The best way to distinguish among Pennsylvania's tree squirrels is by size. It's easy, and a little time spent watching all three species can turn anyone into a tree squirrel expert.

• Red squirrels (sometimes called pine squirrels) are small -- about 8 ounces, twice the size of a chipmunk -- and have a distinct white eye ring.

• Gray squirrels weigh about a pound, and the tips of the hairs on the tail are white, giving it a frosty appearance.

• Fox squirrels weigh about 2 pounds, and the tips of the tail hairs are orange-brown. The belly is also often orange to reddish brown. Fox squirrels are often erroneously called "red squirrels," and this adds to the identification confusion.

Black morphs create even more confusion. Here again, size is the best characteristic because both gray and fox squirrels can occur in black forms.

Black colored squirrels can be surprisingly common where hunting is prohibited. City parks and college campuses can be reservoirs for black morphs of both gray and fox squirrels.

A special squirrel season for junior hunters runs Oct. 12-18. The regular triple-split squirrel season runs Oct. 19-Nov. 30, Dec. 16-24 and Dec. 26-Feb. 22. See Game Commission regulations for details at www.pgc.state.pa.us.


Biologist, author and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 9-11 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 WVLY-AM (Wheeling) and noon-2 p.m. Sundays on 1360 WMNY-AM (Pittsburgh). He can be reached at scottshalaway.googlepages.com and 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.


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