A Brunswick County newcomer searches for clues about the unique rodent he’s spotted in Brunswick County’s pine forest.
You saw what? Where? You say it’s a strange black creature with a white mouth and ears and a white-tipped tail that looks like a cross between a cat, a skunk and a squirrel?
There is such a beast, and it hops and forages in the Brunswick County countryside. Known in scientific terms as Sciurus niger niger, it’s more commonly known as the Southeast fox squirrel. Nearly twice the size of a gray squirrel, it is reported to be the biggest squirrel in North America; some weigh in at more than two-and-a-half pounds.
According to John Harrelson, district 4 wildlife biologist for North Carolina’s Wildlife Resources Commission (WRC), they come in three shades of color: one that’s part gray with black and white highlights, one that’s red and almost tannish, and a pure black breed with the aforementioned highlights that make up its mask, paws and tail.
Harrelson says the Southeast fox squirrels love old, partially burned longleaf pine forests, especially when they’re littered with oak and hickory trees. That specific habitat provides the acorns, hickory nuts and pine seeds they particularly love to scout and munch on during the day. Because they’re bigger and stronger than their little gray cousins, these squirrels can pick up and maneuver those huge longleaf pine cones and scratch out their seeds, which are a big part of their diet.
Harrelson says planned and natural burns in the forests help clear the ground, which is great for this species, because they don’t live up high in the tree limbs like gray squirrels. They travel very long distances on the ground, and ground burned clear of underbrush protects them from hiding predators. Burned ground also makes it fertile turf for new growth of fresh and tender plants that make a delicious fox squirrel salad. Of course, these charred areas also help these darker animals blend into their environment, aiding their survival rate. And even though they don’t live in the trees, they can scurry up the branches if they need a safe place to escape.
The fox squirrels’ preferred habitat is diminishing, though, due to forest-clearing, and the WRC says their population densities are generally low, even in areas where the commission considers them common. They do thrive in the remaining isolated pockets of habitat, which includes a preference for our spectacular Brunswick County golf courses.
The WRC isn’t exactly sure how these southeastern critters came about and became so different from the typical gray squirrel. It doesn’t seem likely it’s a result of some inter-species inbreeding. Harrelson says there’s not a lot of squirrel research out there, and they just don’t have the biological answers to their development. People who spot the Southeast fox squirrels certainly remember them for their amazing differences, however.
Now is about the time of the year the females are coming out of heat. Baby fox squirrels will be making their way into the world up to the beginning of April, Harrelson says. So be on the lookout for them and their strikingly marked moms – now that you know they exist!