Fox squirrel in our backyard

Squirrels in Our Michigan Backyard

Squirrels Love Our Backyard!

We’re lucky to be sharing our southeast Michigan backyard with a large variety of wildlife (of the small sort!), including three species of tree squirrels, and chipmunks, which are also in the squirrel family.

We enjoy watching the squirrels’ antics around our yard — chasing each other through the lawn and up through the trees, attempting to raid our bird feeders (sometimes successfully!), flicking their tails and scolding us from a safe perch in a nearby tree, sunning themselves on our deck or finding a cool shady spot to sprawl on during a hot sunny day.

Common Squirrel Species in Our Backyard

Different Behaviors and Habitats

We have three, possibly four, different species of tree squirrels that visit our backyard in SE Michigan:

  • Fox squirrels
  • Eastern gray squirrels (includes black variations)
  • American red squirrels
  • Southern flying squirrels (possible)

Each species prefers its own habitat, and each has its own characteristic behaviors. Since our yard features a nice open lawn with a few trees, but also borders on a more heavily wooded area, we see different squirrel species that prefer different habitat niches.

We also have many Eastern chipmunks that grace our yard. Chipmunks are also in the squirrel family but in a different genus than the tree squirrels.

Fox Squirrel

Sciurus niger

Fox squirrels are the largest tree squirrels in North America, and the most common squirrels in our neighborhood. They can be over 2 feet long (up to 27 inches) including their tail, and weigh up to about 2 pounds.

Fox squirrels get their name from their coloration — like the orangish-brown of the foxes that are also common in wooded areas nearby.

These squirrels aren’t particularly shy, especially when it comes to begging for food. The fox squirrels grow fat and happy on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI (our city) where they can find all sorts of tidbits left by students. The fox squirrels in our backyard are also very bold in their begging, since they know that I often leave a few extra peanuts out in the yard for them when I fill the bird feeders. That can be a little disconcerting at times, when I’m sitting out on our deck, enjoying the afternoon, and a particularly brazen fox squirrel decides to come up and investigate if I’ve got anything for him (or her…). But a quick movement on my part sends them scurrying again. (The photos below are my own.)

The fox squirrels in our yard spend more time on the ground rather than the trees, but they’re still very adept at running along fences and climbing trees. They make their nests in nearby trees.

When they’re not eating the sunflower seeds and peanuts underneath our bird feeders, they eat nuts and seeds from local trees, tree buds, berries and other fruit, and insects. They especially like walnuts, hickory nuts, and acorns.

Like all squirrels, they’re very playful, and will chase each other around the yard and up and down trees. During the hot summer days, they’ll find shady places to sprawl out and stay cool, and during the cold winter months they’re able to find enough nuts, seeds, and old berries (along with some well-placed “bird food”) to survive.

 Did You Know….?

The Latin family name for squirrels is Sciuridae from the Latin sciurus, meaning squirrel. The word sciurus, in turn, comes from two Greek words: skia, meaning shadow, and ouros, meaning tail.  Squirrels often sit under the shadow of their tail.

Squirrel hiding under tail

Fox squirrel hiding under his tail

 Eastern Gray Squirrel

Sciurus carolinensis

Gray squirrels were the most common squirrels where I grew up in Minnesota, and they’re the second most common squirrel where we live now in SE Michigan.

The eastern gray squirrel is a little smaller and more agile than the fox squirrel, up to about 20 inches long including the tail, and weighs up to about 1 1/2 pounds.

Their diet is similar to that of fox squirrels, and they’ll eat bark, seeds and nuts, including acorns, and fruit. They’ll also eat fungus, insects and grubs, and apparently bird eggs, small birds, and frogs when their usual food sources aren’t available.

And of course they love the bird food we put out, if they can get to it.

As its name implies, a gray squirrel is usually mostly gray, but there are a number of other color variations.

Sometimes they’re reddish brown, and may be confused with their cousins, the fox squirrels, but they’ll usually have a whiter belly, chin, and throat, and they’re not as bulky as the fox squirrels. You can see from the first photo below that even though this Eastern gray squirrel has some orange-brown coloration, parts of its white undersides are showing near the belly and throat.

Gray squirrels are more agile climbers than the fox squirrels, and they’re more likely to climb or jump to our bird feeders.  The acrobatic squirrel shown below is hanging from our peanut feeder.

We also see melanistic (black) variations of the gray squirrel in our backyard. These squirrels are very elegant looking with their glossy black fur. A few years ago one of our black squirrels had a very striking blonde tail.

In our neighborhood, fox squirrels stay in the more open areas, and gray squirrels (including the black variation) prefer the wooded areas, but both are happy in our backyard.

American Red Squirrel

Tamiasciurus hudsonicus

American red squirrels are less frequent visitors to our backyard, at least close to our house, but we often see them running along the power wires at the back of our property near a wooded area.

Red squirrels are much smaller than either the fox or gray squirrels. They’re only up to about 12 inches in length, including their tails, and they weigh about 1/2 pound. Sometimes they’re mistaken for baby fox squirrels because of their reddish color, but they’re a more uniform reddish brown than the fox squirrels, they have a white belly and throat, and their tails aren’t as bushy as the fox or gray squirrels. They also have a striking white ring around their eyes.

They prefer staying up in the trees. I rarely see a red squirrel down on the ground or at our bird feeders, although I occasionally see them running along the top of the fence between our neighbor’s yard and our yard. They’re much faster than the larger squirrels, and their movements are quick and jerky.

Red squirrels prefer to eat seeds from coniferous trees such as pines, cedars, spruces, and firs, but they also do well with other high energy food, such as peanuts.

Southern Flying Squirrel

Glaucomys volans

I didn’t know there were flying squirrels in MIchigan until recently! The southern flying squirrel is nocturnal, so very few of us ever see this little squirrel. Pest control companies in the area know about them though, since they sometimes take up residence in buildings, entering through very small gaps. These cute little squirrels are about 7 inches long and weigh just a couple ounces.

According to the Department of Natural Resources southern flying squirrels are more common than we think. They prefer mature woodlands and parks, and they will visit bird feeders readily. Since we live next to a wooded area with mature trees, I’m guessing that we have flying squirrels in the area.

Besides enjoying the seeds from bird feeders, the diet of flying squirrels is very similar to other squirrels. They like to eat nuts, such as hickory nuts and acorns, seed, and berries. They’ll also eat leaf buds, bark, and insects.

Flying squirrels don’t really fly, but they sail across from tree to tree by spreading their limbs which have a furred skin gliding membrane, called a patagium, between the front and back legs, as shown in the last photo above. They control their glide and speed with their tail and limb movement.

What Kinds of Squirrels Do You Have in Your Backyard?

Do you have squirrels in your neighborhood?  Are they the same as what you’ve seen on this page?