Iowa is home to many kinds of squirrels
—by Steve Lekwa
When most central Iowans think of squirrels, we picture the common Fox Squirrel. This is the large reddish brown squirrel of urban yards, woods, and farm groves, but is only one of several species of squirrels that call Iowa home. Some species, like the Eastern Chipmunk, are also well known. Others may be common locally, but absent elsewhere. Yet others are little known today either because they have become rare or because their habits keep them out of sight most of the time.
The Fox Squirrel is common due to its ability to survive in varied habitats like towns and even farm groves well away from forests. It can display some surprising colors due to genetic variation. Occasional individuals show black bellies where the normal color is strawberry blonde. Others may carry that blonde color into the tails, too, while yet others may end up entirely black. Larger forested areas of the state support populations of Gray Squirrels. Slightly smaller than Fox Squirrels, they are aggressive and often out-compete their larger cousins. Their basic color is gray with white tips on their tail hair that give it a frosted appearance. Gray Squirrels tend to be more vocal than their larger cousins with various squeaks and squeals in addition to the normal barking. They, too, regularly show color variants including populations that can be entirely black. The white-tipped tail hair generally shows in all color phases. Northern and eastern Iowa have populations of Red Squirrels, a smaller reddish tree squirrel with a dark stripe down their side and white bellies. Also known as Jack Squirrels, they are bold and will approach people quite closely if they think food might be available.
Few Eastern Chipmunks existed in central Iowa 50 years ago, but they are now common across the state. These bold and busy little ground squirrels with the familiar striped faces and backs live in underground tunnels with various food storage rooms, nest chambers, and even rooms where waste is deposited. They forage for seeds of various kinds above ground and, unlike most ground squirrels, will readily climb trees and enter buildings. The other relatively common ground squirrel is the 13-lined Ground Squirrel; variously known by other common names like “grinnies or streakies”. This tan short-legged digger with multiple brown speckled stripes is often seen scurrying through short grass or standing tall on its back legs to get a better view in areas like parks and golf courses, or along country roads. It doesn’t climb and is seldom seen near buildings. Once common but now rare, the Franklin’s Ground Squirrel was a citizen of our prairie past. About the size and color or a Gray Squirrel, a few can still be found along abandoned rail lines and areas where significant pasture land still remains. Tawny yellow Plains Pocket Gophers are powerfully built with long claws and heavily muscled shoulders. They spend most of their lives underground and are seldom seen even where they still exist. They, too, have declined in heavily cultivated areas, but still exist where there’s enough pasture, hay, and grassland. Their presence is usually known from the “gopher mounds” of excavated soil pushed to the surface from their extensive tunnel systems.
Last, and maybe least, of our Iowa squirrels is the lovely and unique Southern Flying Squirrel. A neighbor of ours photographed one on their bird feeder south of Story City nearly 60 years ago, but that’s the only sighting in our area that I’m aware of. They are small with a brown back and white belly. Folds of skin between their front and back legs allow them to glide between trees. Even where present in larger forested areas of the state, they are seldom seen because they are strictly nocturnal. They typically nest in old woodpecker holes or in hollow trees, but will enter buildings. People with bird feeders in wooded areas with old, mature trees might want to watch for possible flying squirrel activity near dark.
Squirrels are interesting, entertaining, and sometimes frustrating as they work to gather and store food. Most of Iowa’s old oak, hickory, and walnut groves have squirrels to thank for dispersing and planting the nuts. A few species have adapted and even prospered as Iowa became the most ecologically altered state in the nation. Others have not coped so well and are now seldom seen. We can only hope that squirrels with all their diverse life styles remain a part of our natural heritage.