A wide variety of squirrels occupy Texas, from the swampy east to the rocky west. Some run in trees, some burrow into the ground, and some can fly. You'll see them in forested or arid environments. You might spot a big squirrel nest up in a tree, but miss a small burrow hole. Squirrels can provide insect control but they also can damage crops and are sometimes carriers of rabies.
The Classification of Squirrels
The taxonomic order Rhodentia includes the family Sciuridae, which are the squirrels along with many other species. Sciuridae subfamilies include squirrels, chipmunks, prairie dogs, marmots and woodchucks. In North America, they're found from Alaska's Brooks Range, to central Mexico, and from the Atlantic to Pacific coastlines. In Texas, squirrels live in many different habitats, which vary with the local geography. Some regional sub-species have a distinct identifying coloration.
Tree Squirrels Are the Most Visible
Two contrasting tree squirrels are the eastern gray (Sciurus carolinensis) and the fox squirrel (Sciurus niger). The gray is more numerous but the fox has a wider distribution in Texas, and it's larger. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department says the gray likes dense woods and undergrowth, particularly along streams, while the fox likes open, mature woods. When faced with a threat, the gray will run, but the fox will hide on the other side of a branch or tree. Both prefer to nest in tree cavities, but if none are available, they'll build large nests out of sticks and leaves, high in a tree. They feed on acorns and other nuts, along with fruit and seeds, as well as insects and mushrooms.
Flying Squirrels Are Acrobats
Southern flying squirrels (Glaucomys volans) also live in trees, but they have the ability to glide from tree to tree. TPWD says they're seldom seen because they're nocturnal and timid. Weighing only a few ounces, they're much smaller than the gray and fox squirrels. The National Wildlife Federation explains they can't actually fly like birds or bats; they actually glide on large membranes of skin between their front and rear legs, and their big tails serve as dive brakes when landing. They can glide as far as 150 feet, allowing them to move from tree to tree without touching the ground. They're the most carnivorous of squirrels, raiding bird nests for eggs and chicks, and sometimes eating carrion.
Ground Squirrels Vary by Region
The Mexican ground squirrel (Spermophilus mexicanus) occurs in southern and western parts of Texas. They're small, with lines of white spots on their backs. They prefer scrubby and grassy areas, and stony ground. They use separate burrows for hibernation, nesting and hiding places. They forage on the ground for greens and insects, and will eat roadkill. Texas holds the southernmost range of the thirteen-lined ground squirrel (Spermophilus tridecemlineatus), a small burrowing squirrel that likes grassy areas. They're omnivorous, eating mice, birds and each other, as well as vegetables, making them a crop pest. In Texas, they can only be killed when they cause damage. The Big Bend country and hill country of western and southwestern Texas is home to the rock squirrel (Spermophilus variegatus), a large squirrel and capable climber of rock faces. Big Bend and hill country specimens are dark gray and brown, with some black, while the western forms have a lighter coloration. They feed on seeds, nuts, insects and even small turkeys.
- Smithsonian Museum of Natural History: Rhodentia - Sciuridae
- Texas Parks and Wildlife Department: Squirrels
- National Wildlife Federation: Flying Squirrels
- Texas Parks and Wildlife Department: Mexican Ground Squirrel
- Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management: Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels and Their Control
- The Mammals of Texas - Online Edition: Rock Squirrel
- Photo Credit palo32/iStock/Getty Images
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