The Hawkeye State consists of prairies and savannas, which cover an estimated 2,851.077 acres of forest land. Iowa is home to four species of squirrels, including gray, red, fox, and the southern flying squirrels. These critters are vital to the ecosystem, so let’s take a closer look at them.
Types of Squirrels in Iowa
Squirrels cause a wide range of emotions. Some people love them, while others hate them. Regardless of how you feel, if you live in Iowa, it’s important to learn about these amazing creatures.
After reading this, you’ll understand how these critters play an essential role in our ecosystem.
Let’s look closer at the native and non-native squirrels throughout the state.
#1 Eastern Gray Squirrel
The Eastern Gray squirrel is native to the state and the most common species that can be seen in parks, yards, bird feeders, etc. Deforestation and climate change have caused them to change their behaviors and adapt to new areas, including residential areas.
Let’s take a closer look at the native gray squirrel.
Scientific Name: Sciurus carolinensis
Average Length (including tail): Approximately 48 to 66 centimeters (19 to 26 inches)
Lifespan: The average lifespan of a wild squirrel varies depending on the species, environment, and other factors, but they can live up to 13 years. In captivity, squirrels can live longer, with some living up to 25 years. However, owning a pet is illegal in several states.
Diet: Gray squirrels are opportunistic feeders who will eat cat and dog food and discarded human food if they can’t find other food sources. However, their diet consists primarily of fungi, birdseed, tree bark, nuts, acorns, wild berries, tender leaf buds, etc.
The species was first introduced to Iowa in the early 1900s and has since become widespread throughout the state.
These rodents live in forested and urban environments, including backyards, parks, and woodlands. They can be seen running along power lines, darting across traffic (unfortunately, some of them don’t make it and end up dead), or jumping from tree to tree and bird feeders.
Also, some gray squirrels are black. No, this isn’t a new species; these squirrels turn black because of a faulty pigment gene known as MC1R when they mate with a fox squirrel.
#2 American Red Squirrels
Scientific Name: Tamiasciurus hudsonicus
Average Length (Including tail): Approximately 33-41 cm (13-16 inches)
Lifespan: The average lifespan in the wild is about five years. These critters have a short life span because of the long list of predators such as; fishers, eagles, foxes, owls, hawks, weasels, coyotes, etc.
The red squirrels, also known as Jack squirrels, are smaller than their gray squirrel cousins. Red squirrels are reddish-brown with dark stripes down their sides and white bellies. They have small rounded ears and a long bushy tail.
They are also known for their vocalizations, including chattering, barking, and trilling, which they use to communicate with other squirrels.
These critters can be seen throughout Iowa but are most commonly found in northwest Iowa.
Hardin and Muscatine counties are abundant in conifer trees such as; white pine, juniper, yew, and fir trees.
Conifer trees protect red squirrels from predators and produce food such as pine cones they can collect and cache for later.
#3 Fox Squirrels
Scientific Name: Sciurus niger
Average Length (Including tail): 20 to 30 inches (50.8 to 76.2 cm)
Lifespan: Fox squirrels can live 8-10 years under ideal conditions. That said, most don’t live that long as Iowa classifies them as small game animals, allowing hunters to hunt them. In addition, the list of predators is long and consists of raptors such as hawks and eagles, bobcats, snakes, owls, weasels, etc.
Fox squirrels are abundant in Council Bluffs, Iowa, located along the Missouri River’s east bank. However, like their gray cousin, they have adapted to several environments.
They prefer deciduous forests because they consist of maples, locusts, oaks, etc., which all produce their favorite foods.
You can see them making acrobatic moves to get to acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts, and pecans and then running with the nut to store in their cache to eat later in the year when it’s harder to find food.
#4 Southern Flying Squirrels
Scientific Name: Glaucomys volans
Average Length (including tail): 21-26 cm (8.3-10.2 inches)
Lifespan: These critters have a shorter lifespan than their tree squirrel cousins. Most have a 3-4 year lifespan in the wild. This is because of the long list of predators, such as; hawks, owls, other birds, raccoons, domestic cats, etc. Also, they have a high metabolic rate, which requires a lot of calories to maintain their energy levels. Unfortunately, the food shortages due to climate change makes it hard to find food for themselves or their young.
Southern flying squirrels are small animals weighing at most four ounces.
They live in heavily wooded areas, preferring broadleaf trees. The rodents fly by using a gliding membrane that stretches between their four legs. They are nocturnal and primarily arboreal animals that nest in trees.
Southern flying squirrels have soft, dense, greyish-brown fur covering their ears, heads, and backs. In addition, the underside of their chests, abdomen, neck, and lower jaw is covered by creamy white fur.
They have enormous eyes that are circled by black hair. The inside of their ears is pink and hairless.
Their hind feet have five claws, and their front feet have four claws each.
The hind and forefeet are approximately the exact sizes. The southern flying squirrel has a broad flat fur-covered tail.
While not as commonly seen as their tree and ground-dwelling counterparts, Iowa is home to the southern flying squirrel. It is smaller than their cousins, Northern Flying Squirrels.
Most people will never see one because these nocturnal animals because they are more abundant in the eastern part of the state along the Des Moines River and Stephens Forest,
That said, they will visit birdhouses in urban areas but are rare sightings due to their nocturnal nature.
Habitats and Ecology
Woodlands and Forests
You will find various types of squirrels in woodlands and forests in Iowa. Several pest control companies say the gray squirrel is the most common species in urban and open woodlots.
Iowa’s diverse landscape is home to various wildlife, including squirrels. If you’re a squirrel lover or love watching wildlife, some of the best places to spot them are in their natural habitats, including forests, public parks, state parks, and designated wildlife areas.
- Stephens State Forest: located in south central Iowa, is home to gray and fox squirrels and other wildlife such as; cottontail rabbits, skunks, coyotes, whitetail deer, etc. It is the largest of the forests in the state, with a variety of tree species, including oak-hickory species.
- Burr Oaks Woods Conservation Area: A nature 1,071 acre nature center located in Blue Springs, Iowa, that includes steep forested hillsides that runs along the Burr Oak Creek.
Urban and Suburban Areas
They can thrive in city parks, gardens, and areas with abundant trees. Due to their adaptability, this species does not need to live exclusively in natural woodlands.
Their population has evolved to become a nuisance to some homeowners, and the state now classifies some of them as small game animals.
Grasslands and Meadows
Though not as common, Iowa’s savanna prairie and wetlands are home to some species of ground squirrels, such as; the Thirteen-Lined ground squirrel. Like their cousins, the tree squirrels and ground squirrels are essential in distributing seeds and aerating soil in these ecosystems.
It is known as the sleepiest mammal because it spends most of its time asleep than awake.
Behavior and Diet
Below is a look at each type of squirrel’s behavioral and dietary preferences.
As you observe squirrels in Iowa, you’ll notice they display different foraging patterns. Let’s take a closer look:
- Tree squirrels: The most common types, like gray squirrels and red squirrels, are known for their love of nuts, such as acorns, walnuts, and hazelnuts. They often bury nuts in the ground to save for later, a behavior called caching. This helps them survive the winter months when food is scarce.
- Ground squirrels: Though less common in Minnesota, ground squirrels focus mainly on seeds, insects, and small fruits. They forage close to the ground and rely on their burrow systems to retreat, sleep, hibernate, store food, and raise their young.
- Flying squirrels: Southern flying squirrels can be found in the state, mainly in the eastern part of the state. These critters are more abundant along the Des Moines River, and Stephens Forest, but have been spotted in urban environments foraging bird feeders. These nocturnal creatures glide between trees in search of fungi, lichen, and sometimes nesting birds or insects.
Each species has its unique social patterns, with some similarities, such as:
- Tree squirrels: Both gray and red squirrels are typically solitary animals, only coming together during mating season. However, during colder months, they may share nests for warmth.
- Ground squirrels: Generally more social and gregarious than tree squirrels, ground squirrels often form loose colonies to help protect against predators and share resources.
- Flying squirrels: These unique creatures are relatively social, often sharing nests (called dreys) with their family members or other flying squirrels of the same sex.
Reproduction and Life Cycle
Mating and Nesting
During the breeding season, which typically occurs between late February and March, you may witness an increase in squirrel activity as they search for mates.
Once a male squirrel locates a receptive female, it will mate, and soon after, the female will begin building her nest.
Tree squirrels, such as the eastern gray squirrel, construct large nests made of leaves and twigs high up in the trees to provide safety and warmth for their offspring, often referred to as a “den.”
Flying squirrels, on the other hand, prefer to nest in tree cavities or nest boxes. Their unique gliding abilities allow them to access these elevated nesting locations easily.
Conservation and Human Interaction
Threats and Challenges
All wildlife, including squirrels, face different threats and challenges related to conservation and human interaction. This includes challenges such as:
- Habitat loss
- Climate change
- Agriculture (which is contributing to the change in a squirrel’s dietary habits.)
What You Can Do to Help
According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, habitat loss, fragmentation, and competition with non-native species will eventually lead to the endangerment of the Southern flying squirrel.
As an Iowan, there are several actions you can take:
- Educate yourself: Learn more about the different types of squirrels in your area and the threats they face. By understanding their needs and challenges, you can make informed decisions on how to help them.
- Plant native trees and vegetation: By planting native trees and vegetation, you’re providing the squirrels with natural food sources, nesting spots, and shelter from predators.
- Provide nest boxes: If you have a yard or access to a suitable area, consider installing nest boxes for squirrels. These provide them additional safe places to rest, raise their young, and escape predators.
- Avoid using pesticides: Chemicals present in pesticides can cause harm to squirrels and their food sources, so opt for more sustainable and wildlife-friendly pest control methods.
- Slow down when driving: Many squirrels fall victim to car collisions, especially during the fall season when they are collecting food for the winter. Be more careful when driving, particularly in areas where squirrels are common.
By taking these steps, you’re playing a vital role in preserving Iowa’s squirrel population and contributing to their habitats’ overall well-being.
Iowa is home to the gray, fox, red, and southern flying squirrel. Deforestation and climate change have caused them to change their behaviors and adapt to new areas, including residential areas.
These squirrels play essential roles in the state’s ecosystem, including seed dispersal and forest regeneration.
Understanding the different types of squirrels in Iowa can help us appreciate the diversity of wildlife in our state and take steps to protect and conserve their habitats.
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