CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Love 'em or hate 'em, everyone knows squirrels. "Squirrels," however, is a generic term. I use it here to refer to game species - gray, fox, and red squirrels. These are the three species of tree squirrels that most eastern state wildlife agencies recognize as game species.
To confuse the issue just a bit, some states also list "black" squirrels in their hunting regulations. And though melanistic (black) squirrels occur widely, they are not a distinct species. Black squirrels are a genetic form or "morph" of gray and fox squirrels. (Melanism is an overdose of dark pigments, or melanins, that are under genetic control.)
Distinguishing among the three species of tree squirrels is relatively easy. Beyond the obvious color differences, red squirrels are small (about 8 ounces, twice the size of chipmunks) 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 the tail a frosty appearance.
Fox squirrels weigh about two pounds, and the tips of their tail hairs are orange-brown. Their bellies are also often orangeish- to reddish-brown. Fox squirrels are often erroneously called "red" squirrels, and this adds to identification confusion.
The best way to distinguish among tree squirrels is by size. Red squirrels are about twice as big as chipmunks; gray squirrels are twice the size of reds; and fox squirrels are twice the size of grays. A little time spent watching all three species makes these size differences obvious.
Black morphs create confusion. Here again, size is the best characteristic because both gray and fox squirrels occur in black forms.
Black morphs can be surprisingly common where hunting is prohibited. City parks and college campuses can be reservoirs for melanistic morphs of both gray and fox squirrels. Nature seems to frown on individuals that stand out - perhaps they're too easy for predators to spot. In any case, populations of black squirrels of either species tend to be local and isolated
Ecologically, tree squirrels share similar habitats and have similar reproductive habits. Gray and fox squirrels inhabit parks and deciduous woodlands in the eastern U.S. Gary squirrels are most commonly seen in wooded backyards and city park setting. In nature they prefer mature oak-hickory forests. Fox squirrels prefer more open wooded areas. A good general rule is that where oaks thrive, both gray and fox squirrels will be nearby.