In honor of Squirrel Appreciation Day, we’d like to introduce you to a unique squirrel you may not be as familiar with and is a Virginia Species of Greatest Conservation Need, the Delmarva Peninsula Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger cinereus) or as it is more commonly known, the Delmarva Fox Squirrel.
This large squirrel can grow up to 30 inches long, including its fluffy tail that can grow up to 15 inches long. The color of its fur is steely blue to whitish gray and it has a white belly. Its rounded ears are short and thick. Compared to Gray Squirrels, the Delmarva Fox Squirrel is 1 ½ times larger in size, their ears are shorter, and their fur is longer, coarser, and lighter in color. They also live a more terrestrial life style than Gray Squirrels and are quieter, slower and less agile.
The range of Delmarva Fox Squirrels in Virginia only includes the Eastern Shore, which constitutes the southern end of the Delmarva Peninsula. Their habitat includes wooded areas, particularly mature loblolly pine and hardwood forests with an open understory or swamps deep within deciduous forests. These squirrels can also be found in woodlots, fences, and hedgerows near farm fields and groves of trees near water. Tree cavities and snags (standing dead trees) are other desirable habitat features.
The Delmarva Fox Squirrel eats nuts, seeds, and acorns from gum, oak, loblolly pine, maple, walnut, and hickory trees. Other items they eat include: buds, flowers, fruit, fungi, insects, green tree shoots, and mature green pine cones. They have been known to eat and store away caches of mushrooms. During the spring, they will eat the bark, cambium, leaves, and twigs of deciduous trees. They also will eat agricultural crops such as corn, soybean, wheat barley, oats, apples, and more.
Natural predators of the Delmarva Fox Squirrel include: red foxes, minks, weasels, birds of prey, and unleashed dogs and cats. Young squirrels may also be eaten by raccoons, opossums, and rat snakes.
The mating season for this species is late winter – early spring. They often utilize tree cavities as dens, but also will nest in tree crotches, tangles of vines, on tree trunks, or at the end of large tree branches. During February – April females give birth to litters of 1-6 young. The females care for their young until they are weaned.
Conservation Success Story
After 40 years of conservation efforts by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), state agencies, landowners, and other partners, USFWS determined that the Delmarva Fox Squirrel is no longer in danger of extinction through all or a significant part of is range, so in December of 2015, they officially removed it from the federal list of endangered species!
The squirrel was one of the original 78 endangered species listed under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1967. Its historical range included the Delmarva Peninsula (Maryland, Delaware and Virginia), southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey, but during the mid-20th century, its range and population declined sharply due to the clearing of forests for agriculture and development, short-rotation timber harvests, and over-hunting. By the time of its listing in 1967, the Delmarva fox squirrel’s range had been whittled down to just 4 counties in Maryland.
Over time, conservation efforts in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia increased the squirrel’s range from 4 to 10 counties! Their population now covers 28% of the Delmarva Peninsula (mostly in Maryland) and includes as many as 20,000 individuals. A key contribution in this recovery was the establishment of new populations by biologists who moved Delmarva Fox Squirrels to new parts of the 3 states. This conservation method, known as translocation, reintroduced squirrels into areas within the historic range where populations either experienced significant declines or were no longer present. The most successful of the translocation efforts in Virginia was at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge where the resulting populations are doing well. The refuge reports to have between 300- 350 individuals, with new populations dispersing on their own throughout the southern portion of Assateague Island.
Delmarva residents also played a major role in the greater recovery effort; over 80% of this squirrel’s range lies on private land. Some private landowners host new translocated populations of squirrels on their farms and many others provide habitat for the squirrels. Another contributor to the recovery was the closing of a hunting season on the squirrel, which reduced mortality and likely allowed populations in some areas to rebuild. Over time, populations increased, and young squirrels dispersed to new areas of occupied forest.
Despite their overall regional growth in population, conservation work is still needed. Delmarva Fox Squirrels are still considered rare in both Virginia and Delaware. Virginia lists the Delmarva Fox Squirrel as a Tier 2 species on our Wildlife Action Plan. Tier 2 species are considered a Very High Conservation Need. They have a high risk of extinction or extirpation at the state level. Populations of these species are at very low levels, face real threat(s), or occur within a very limited distribution. Immediate management is needed for stabilization and recovery.
The good news in Virginia is that a 2009 study funded by DGIF identified approximately 630 acres in northern Accomack County that are presently suitable for Delmarva Fox Squirrel occupation. With proper land management this area of suitable habitat could more than double in the next 10-20 years! This work provides an important first step towards increasing squirrel populations on the lower Delmarva Peninsula.
Potential future conservation efforts in Virginia could include the engagement of private landowners and partnering with other state and local agencies to gain support for new squirrel translocations. Another possible conservation measure would be to work towards developing a corridor of connected habitat between the Delmarva Fox Squirrel population on the Eastern Shore and the southernmost population in Maryland, which would create opportunity for genetic exchange between the two populations and increase the chances for a stable, long term population on the lower Delmarva Peninsula.