What Kind of Squirrels are Those?

by Chuck Loeffler

The Bent Tree Log - August 1992


If you've spent most of your life in the city, and especially if you've moved to this area from the east or west coast, you may have wondered about those funny looking black squirrels with the prominent tufts of hair on their ears.  They are Abert's squirrels, also sometimes called tassel-eared squirrels, and are by far the most common squirrel in our area.  You may also see an occasional fox squirrel.  They are a reddish-brown color and lack the conspicuous tufts of hair on the ears.  The Abert's squirrel is the true native here, and the fox squirrel occurs here only due to transplants from urban areas and deciduous woodlands.


The Abert's squirrel is a true tree squirrel of the Genus Sciurus, and is found primarily in association with Ponderosa Pine forests in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and southeastern Utah.  They vary greatly in color throughout their range.  In most of their range the gray and brown phase is most common, but in our area the black phase is predominant.


These squirrels can be quite playful and entertaining, especially during early and mid-summer, after the young are weaned, and they play 'tag' around the trunks of large pine trees.  Breeding occurs in the spring - usually in April - and one litter of three or four young is produced by an adult pair each year.  They build their nests high in the tops of pine trees, using pine boughs.  Their population is kept in check by various factors, including predation by foxes and owls, natural food availability, and other mortality factors such as accidents and disease.  Although tree squirrels have lived as long as 15 years in zoos, in the wild their average life span is probably not more than four to six years.


Their primary food source consists of the seeds and the cambium layer of small twigs of the Ponderosa Pine.  The clipped off small pine branches you will find occasionally under your trees are probably the result of squirrels either feeding or collecting materials for nest building.  This does no serious or permanent damage to the trees.  They will also eat other plant materials and fungi on occasion.  Artificial feeding of squirrels is not recommended, except during very severe winter weather, and then only on a limited basis.  They do best on their natural foods, and artificial feeding can result in an unnaturally high population which will crash if/when feeding is stopped.


Although Abert's squirrels have not been implicated in any cases of plague in our area, and tree squirrels in general are not as likely to carry plague as are ground squirrels and prairie dogs, it is not wise to try to handle dead or live squirrels.  If you ever find a dead squirrel, or other rodent, that you suspect has died of disease, use gloves and tongs to place it in a securely sealed plastic bag, and get it to the El Paso County Health Department for testing and evaluation as soon as possible.  Always keep a respectable distance between yourself and wildlife when observing them - especially wild mammals.


The squirrels and other native wildlife are an integral part of the environment we live in, and we should always strive to protect, respect, and enjoy them.