Wild Profile: Meet the grey squirrel

Published: February 11, 2020

grey squirrel By Bruce MacQueen/Shutterstock

Eastern Canada’s largest tree squirrel, the grey squirrel, isn’t always grey. Thanks to a genetic mutation, some squirrels have black fur. Some research suggests that black fur allows the squirrel to retain heat more easily. This genetic trait could be an adaptive advantage in Canada’s cold winters. (Indeed, black squirrels are more common in the most northern reaches of the species’ range.)

Grey or black, these squirrels are native only to the eastern part of Canada, from Manitoba to New Brunswick. They don’t hibernate in the winter, instead spending their days digging out caches of food from beneath the snow. They’ll stash almost any kind of nut in a cache: hickory, beech, walnut, or pecan. When they’re not digging (and eating), they’re zipping along at 25 km per hour, and leaving tracks that look like two exclamation points!! These tracks can be close together, or as far apart as one metre. Squirrels are decent long jumpers when they’re in a hurry, say, running from red fox or weasel predators.

Grey squirrels grow a thicker coat for the cold season, and treat their bushy tail as a pashmina scarf to wrap around their bodies. Like other squirrels, they also use their tail as a rudder and for balance. If caught by the tail, they can survive losing the sheath (and even some vertebrae in their backs, gah). This is why it’s common to see grey squirrels with wispy half-tails.

Why do grey squirrels (maddeningly) run into the path of your oncoming car, dart back, then turn around and run towards the car again? With no defenses against any creature that wants to eat them, the squirrels have evolved to run in a zig-zag pattern to try to elude certain predators. Unfortunately, this strategy doesn’t work with a car. So the most a driver can do is slow down and hope the squirrel abandons the zig-zag strategy…then gets the heck off the road!

Squirrels miss spring as much as you do! Check out nine fluffy squirrels who are praying for spring.

Featured Video