When you look around your yard and see the characteristic bushy tail crossing the lawn, you may not realize it, but you discover an important member of Minnesota’s ecology. The friendly dispositions of squirrels provide more than just a laugh for us backyard watchers: watching squirrels is a helpful way to learn about our environment and instill an appreciation for nature.
As Scott Noland of Minnesota DNR explained, “They’re kind of a gateway species into the environmental world that people see quite frequently.”
Gray, red, fox, two species of flying squirrels, and ground squirrels can be found year-round throughout the state. While gray squirrels are probably the ones you’ve seen digging up lawns and hijacking birdseed, here’s a quick guide to spotting each of the six different species found in Minnesota.
The eastern gray squirrel is the most common squirrel seen in the northeast metro. They are known for their bushy tails, which measure around 8 to 10 inches in length, which is about the same length as their body. The gray squirrel can be seen in deciduous forests, wooded parks, and residential areas. Gray squirrels are among the few animals that thrive in areas where homes break up natural forests.
The flying squirrel is more elusive than other species. This nocturnal squirrel can “fly” thanks to a fold of skin that extends from its front legs to its hind legs. When their legs are stretched out, their skin turns into a flat surface that allows them to “fly” up to 50 feet. There are two species of flying squirrel in Minnesota: the southern flying squirrel and the northern flying squirrel. They can be spotted by their brown bug eyes, olive brown backs and white bellies, as well as their soft, silky fur.
“We get calls about them in the northeast metro. People will call and say they saw a flying squirrel, which is really cool. Some people might see them if they’re doing tree removal or if they just see them at dawn and dusk,” Noland said.
The fox squirrel is not as common as the gray squirrel, but it is notable for its large size. Fox squirrels can weigh up to 3 pounds and measure 20 to 24 inches in length. Their tails are about 10 inches in length. Fox squirrels can be found in the northeast metro, but are more common in the western part of the state.
The red squirrel, otherwise known as the pine squirrel, is the noisiest species of squirrel in Minnesota. These squirrels tend to chatter when humans are nearby. They have a rusty red back and tail and a white belly. The name “pine squirrel” comes from their habitat of coniferous woods throughout the country’s snow belt and in mountainous regions of Canada.
The 13-lined ground squirrel is commonly referred to as the Minnesota gopher. These ground squirrels can be spotted across the state’s grasslands and have invaded farmland as well. The eponymous squirrel has exactly 13 stripes on its back and has golden fur, just like its famous namesake, University of Minnesota mascot Goldy Gopher.
These six species have many ways to get through the harsh Minnesota winter.
To preserve energy, they limit their activity time in winter. They don’t hibernate like other animals, but they tend to stay within the confines of their nest when temperatures drop.
“During very cold spells, they will stand in their nest with other squirrels to get extra body heat,” Noland said. Like humans, squirrels will shiver when cold. Their thick coat of fur also helps them stay warm in extremely low temperatures.
In the fall, squirrels begin to build up their fat reserves and collect and store food for the winter in tree cavities. Noland explains that to humans, it may seem like squirrels don’t have enough food to survive the winter.
“We tell people that there is plenty of food for them in the natural environment for these creatures to live here. That’s how they were able to survive.
Backyard feeding has led to an abundance of squirrels in the underground, but Noland recommends keeping wildlife in check. However, if you fancy feeding your backyard residents, it’s best to research your city ordinances before you feed.
Squirrels remain prolific in the Northeast Metro, and unlike other Minnesota wildlife species, there have been no disease-related incidences in the squirrel population. Since squirrels thrive in urban and suburban environments, humans have many opportunities to learn more about their fellow Minnesotans.
“It’s a way for people to get to know them and instill some sort of value and ethics and concern for the land, and an interest in wildlife too,” Noland noted. “And of course they’re pretty fun and comedic too.”