The Appalachian Voice

2012 - Issue 2 (Apr/May)

Fox Squirrels Making a Comeback in N.C.

By Madison Hinshaw

If you’ve ever seen what you thought was a gray squirrel on steroids, what you actually saw was most likely a fox squirrel.

While this bushy-tailed, colossal squirrel is common throughout most of Appalachia, it has not been seen in the North Carolina mountains in several decades. But now these furry creatures are on a path to making an incredible comeback in the northwestern region of the state.

Already abundant in Virginia and further north, data provided by hunters in North Carolina counties — including Ashe, Alleghany and Watauga — during the last several years shows that more and more fox squirrels are expanding into areas of the state near the Virginia border, says Chris Kreh, district wildlife biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

Above:While fox squirrels can sometimes resemble gray squirrels in coloration, there are noticeable differences. In eastern regions such as the Appalachians, the squirrels can sport more of a reddish coat than gray squirrels, with dark brown and even black faces and backs. Right:The most distinguishable have striking while patches on the nose, feet and tail. Photos credit: Jeffrey S. Pippen

“The $64,000 question is why they are migrating to these counties,” says Kreh. “But the bigger question is why they weren’t there historically.”

Kreh says that changes to the forests in the northwest part of North Carolina in the last decades could be the reason that the picture is different now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Because they do not have the agility of the gray squirrel, fox squirrels prefer less-dense forests, including those of the Appalachian Mountains thinned by human activity since the 1800s.

Adult fox squirrels are much larger than the gray squirrel. They are typically about 20 to 26 inches long and can weigh one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half pounds. Abundant throughout much of the U.S., the fox squirrel has two main subspecies: the Midwestern and the Southeastern. The Southeastern subspecies are dark and sometimes almost black in color, while the Midwestern fox squirrel has a wide variety of looks including red, blonde, brown and even orangish, and sport dark faces or backs and sometimes even a striking white face, tail and feet.

Habitats of the two subspecies of fox squirrel are also different. The Southeastern fox squirrel prefers less-dense, long-leaf pine forests found in the Piedmont and coastal plains of Eastern North Carolina. Using their greater size and strength, they are able to manipulate the large longleaf pine cones and thrive in the state’s longleaf pine forests.

The subspecies of fox squirrel that is migrating into the mountains of North Carolina, however, is more likely the Midwestern fox squirrel. Unlike their eastern cousins that are more at home in longleaf pines, the Midwestern subspecies prefers hardwood forests with open canopies — commonly found in the Appalachian mountain landscape.

The Midwestern fox squirrel is expanding its ranges on the border of Virginia and North Carolina. Fox squirrel populations are abundant in Carroll and Grayson counties in Virginia, and those numbers are starting to trickle down into some counties in North Carolina, such as Ashe, Alleghany and Watauga.

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission gets most of its data from sportsmen’s reports, including live observations, road kill finds and photos. They also have a system for logging and reporting wildlife, which helps create a census on the population of the fox squirrel.

According to Kreh, the more open forests adjacent to human development suit the fox squirrel more than the gray squirrel, adding to the expansion. Property owners in those counties can assist the fox squirrel’s transition by planting walnut trees and other hardwoods.

Kreh also mentioned that, as the Midwestern subspecies expands south and eastward, their frisky cousin from the east is venturing westward, setting the stage for what could be a intriguing future for the fox squirrel.

“When you have the rapidly expanding numbers in this part of the state, and the expanding populations of the Southeastern variety in the eastern part of the state, they are going to meet in the middle,” Kreh says. “It’s going to be interesting to see what happens when they do meet.”

Posted: April 18, 2012

11 Responses

  1. mark norman says:

    i saw a lone fox squirrel this morning cross the road in craven county,also saw 2 about a year ago midway between little washington and new bern,its exciting,only seen 3 in my 40 plus years in the area

  2. Lynn McCormick says:

    I spotted a fox squirrel on 8/25/2013 on the hiking trail at Alice Keene park in Greenville, nc today. He was a sight to behold! I’ve been walking that trail for five years and that’s the first time I’ve seen a fox squirrel.

  3. Jane says:

    We live in Apex have 2 bird feeders that bring the usual gray squirrels. About two weeks ago a bigger brownish squirrel appeared with a large bare spot on his head. Looked like it scraped it’s head or been in a fight. A big chunk of fur on top of was missing. We wondered if it’d been attacked or if it had mange (?) He’s become a regular and the fur has grown in and it’s black. His tail is also a mixture of black and silver. Even though it is the biggest squirrel to come in our yard, it is chased away and intimidated by the most aggressive of the smaller squirrels. Can you tell me if these squirrels interbreed because this one has a white stomach but size and markings seem to indicate it’s a fox. Several years ago I saw a black fox squirrel in the woods at Old Brunswick Town right at the Cape Fear River near Southport. It was marked with white and, at first thought I was seeing some type of weird skunk.

  4. Patty says:

    We have been seeing a number of different Fox Squirrels in our yard this month and last month in Cumberland County. Just this morning (11/11/13) I took many pictures of at least two in varying shades of black with some white on face, ears, feet and/or tail. I saw two that were small with very shiny black tails and bodies. Then another larger (or two) smokey colored bodies with long black tails.

  5. Brian says:

    Surprised to see a newcomer this afternoon among the usual grey squirrel visitors. A quick internet search showed this one to be without any question or doubt a Fox Squirrel. First time ever witnessed at this location in Boone.

  6. Jamie Goodman says:

    That’s super exciting, Brian, I have seen a couple in West Jefferson but you are the first report of one in Boone. What side of that town?

  7. stephen frame says:

    Spotted a black one this morning on camp lejeune. Beautiful sight. He didn’t even run he sat there for a good while wish I would have had a camera.

  8. Brian says:

    Jamie, East of Boone. It showed up again today.

  9. Daishawn says:

    I’ve seen a few of these in my yard in Princeton, NC. Glad I found this site to explain to me what they are- at first they seemed scary because of they’re size. Its neat knowing now that these are kind of rare and I get to see them almost every day!

  10. Erskine says:

    Just saw one over the weekend in a field adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway in Alleghany County around MM232 – a first for me!

  11. Saw a midwestern fox squirrel in Stokes County last week just east of the town of King.

Leave a Reply