I don't usually think of squirrels as particularly noteworthy animals.
These ubiquitous rodents live in our trees, invade our birdfeeders and annoy the heck out of gardeners. When they enter a house or car, they can create a dangerous and costly mess by shredding insulation and gnawing through wood and wires. I think of squirrels as rats with tails and generally don't pay them much heed unless I'm scaring one off a fig tree or porch screens.
The other day, however, I had a different kind of squirrel encounter. More accurately, I encountered a different kind of squirrel.
It was midday and I was almost home from town when I pulled off a dirt road to photograph a flock of bluebirds.
On one side of the road, a small herd of cattle and a family of sandhill cranes were grazing an open range. Across the road, a freshly-mown field abutted several acres of pines.
While trying to capture pictures of the colorful birds, I noticed movement in the field. Some dark-colored animal was out there but was too far away to see clearly. I pointed the lens at it and zoomed in for a closer look.
My camera revealed a bushy-tailed, black-faced, white-eared Sherman's fox squirrel stretching up to get a better look at the odd-looking creature watching from across the field. The squirrel's front paws — they looked like white gloves over black arms — held an unidentifiable morsel. After our mutual stare-down, she continued nibbling while I clicked away on my camera.
I recognized the animal because I'd chanced upon a Sherman'sfox squirrel on two other occasions, both in the same general area. The first time — before I even knew such a creature existed — I mistook the animal for a weasel or mink, an easy mistake to make since they share similar body sizes, shapes and colorings. Their very moniker hints of a similarity to foxes because of their fox-like gait.
Another reason Sherman's fox squirrels often go unrecognized is their relative rarity. One of four subspecies of fox squirrels in the Sunshine State, they live in open pinewoods with scattered oak trees in parts of central and north-central Florida. Stands of longleaf pine cones and seeds provide their main food sources, but they also eat fungi, fruit, flower buds and acorns from turkey oak trees. They build their nests in oaks too, lining the structures with leaves and moss. Sherman's fox squirrels reproduce in late winter and mid-summer with a litter of two to three offspring each time.
Scientists estimate that more than 80-percent of the species' native territory is gone — developed for commercial, agricultural or residential use. Often territory is degraded by lack of fire, which is necessary to control undergrowth.
Because of their depleted habitat, Florida's Endangered andThreatened Species Rule lists Sherman's fox squirrels as a Species of SpecialConcern. Under Florida law, they cannot be hunted.
While observing the female fox squirrel in my neighbor's field, I found myself comparing her to the common grey squirrel. Although grey squirrels are too ordinary to be special, they're admittedly cute, especially when they stand upright on their rear haunches. Sherman's fox squirrels are even more adorable because of their color and size.
Weighing in at two to three pounds, these bushy-tailed beauties are up to three times heavier than grey squirrels and about 10 inches longer. Their strong hind legs allow them to leap longer distances, and they spend more time on the ground than their tree-loving cousins.
My fox squirrel encounter was a memorable experience, and I'm encouraged that, like the Florida scrub-jay, whose population is also in decline, pockets of suitable habitat still exist in our region to sustain these fascinating creatures.
It may be just a squirrel, an animal most of us consider little more than a rodent pest, but there's nothing squirrelly about a species' need to survive. I'm rooting for the Sherman's fox squirrel to be one of nature's success stories.