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Western Gray Squirrel: Industrious Creatures

Credit: Kathleen Scavone

What do you call it when western gray squirrels attempt to cool off? Splooting! During the summer heat wave, you may have witnessed western gray squirrels as they flattened themselves out on the ground with their hind legs outstretched. They were ‘splooting’.

Also called California gray squirrels, these industrious critters are fun to watch as they scurry up and down tree trunks and even perform ‘flying Walenda Brothers’ acrobatics while jumping from limb to limb!

Western gray squirrels can be quite vocal, and at first, they may fool you into thinking the sound you hear is a bird or other animal. Both ground squirrels and western gray squirrels are found in our county’s parks. Western gray squirrels are considered tree squirrels or arboreal since they forage and nest in oak woodlands. Western gray squirrels thrive up to 6,000 feet in elevation, all along the western coast of California to Mexico. The subspecies of these squirrels range from Washington state to the western Sierra Nevada Mountains are Silver-gray squirrels, Oregon gray, banner-tail, and Columbian gray squirrels.

Since squirrels molt in the spring, you may happen upon some silvery fur while hiking. A nesting mother squirrel will use fur to line her nest. These squirrels mature at about ten months and commence breeding at one year. These woodland creatures will sometimes bite one another, then they will partake of a honeymoon and mating season that expands from December to June! They may produce from one to five ‘kits’ or young who emerge from the nest at around six or more months. The Western gray squirrel nest, also known as a drey, can be large stick-built creations that are leaf-lined, high in the tree’s top story. Mother squirrels become quite territorial and fight amongst themselves, chasing other squirrels from the region of their nests.

Western gray squirrels consume seeds and nuts such as pine and acorn to assist in fattening them up. Watch for the remains of pine cones left as detritus on the forest floor after a squirrel has made a meal of pine nuts. They also consume berries, insects, and fungi. Squirrels prefer to feed during the morning or afternoon times.

As you observe squirrels, watch as they can fan out their luxurious tails to create cover from hawks and eagles. Other predators include raccoons, mountain lions, coyotes, house cats, and, of course, humans. In some areas of California, the gray squirrels are in peril due to loss of habitat and other, more aggressive species of squirrels invading their territory.

Western grays are a boon to forest ecosystems since the fungi they consume thrive symbiotically along the root systems of the trees. As the squirrels consume the fungi, they inadvertently spread the spores, which is a boon to the trees’ health. Now you can add squirrels to your ‘to watch for’ list as you take time to enjoy the great outdoors.

Kathleen Scavone

Kathleen Scavone, MA., is a retired educator who has resided in beautiful Lake County for over 45 years. She freelances fiction, poetry, nature writing, curriculum ideas, and local history. She writes for The Press Democrat, Napa Valley Register, News From Native California, Green Prints, etc. She has published three books, a play and a poetry chapbook. The second edition of her locally set historical novella, People of the Water- a novella of the events leading to the Bloody Island Massacre of 1850 is available in local museums and stores, as well as on Amazon.com and IngramSpark in both paperback and e-book formats. She has written Anderson Marsh State Historic Park- A Walking History, Prehistory, Flora and Fauna tour of a California State Park, and Native Americans of Lake County. Kathleen is a photographer and potter. Her other interests include hiking, assisting on archaeology digs, travel, gardening and reading.

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