There are 278 species of squirrel in the world. The fact that only a half-dozen of those species can be found in our area must surely sadden squirrel lovers (just as squirrel haters think that’s six species too many).
Consider today’s column your local squirrel-spotter’s guide. Ladies and gentlemen, meet your Washington area squirrels!
Eastern gray squirrel. This is by far the most common squirrel in these parts and one that is remarkably diverse in appearance. The coat can vary from a dark gray to a grayish brown to a light silver. (The silvery ones seem especially common around the Mall.) They can also be black, for the black squirrels in our area are actually “gray” squirrels. Albino examples are not uncommon.
Delmarva fox squirrel. This local variation of the Eastern fox squirrel is found on the Delmarva peninsula. It is a tree squirrel, although it spends a lot of time on the ground. The name comes from its ruddy coloration. It is one of the larger American squirrels. (The further south you go, the larger the fox squirrels are, said the Smithsonian Institution’s Richard Thorington. Interestingly, that is the opposite of gray squirrels. Our gray squirrels are bigger than Florida’s. Their fox squirrels are bigger than ours.) The Delmarva fox squirrel has lost much of its habitat over the years and is considered an endangered species.
Southern flying squirrel. This is the only nocturnal squirrel in our area, although you might spot it early in the evening. It’s small, weighing only about three ounces (compared to the one-pound gray squirrel). They have a decided preference for truffles, Thorington said, so they descend from the trees to dig around for them. “It’s a truffle we don’t particularly care for,” he said. So we couldn’t train flying squirrels to find expensive edible fungus and make us rich? “You’d probably do better with a pig,” Thorington said.
North American red squirrel. Not very common around here, at least compared with in New England. “It tends to be in coniferous woodland with pines rather than forests with hardwood trees,” Thorington said. It weighs half as much as a gray squirrel and has a red top and a whitish underbelly.
Woodchuck. Woodchucks fall under the marmot category (as in yellow-bellied marmot). But marmots fall under the squirrel category, and thus the woodchuck’s inclusion here. Also known as a groundhog. Woodchucks have a taste for grass and clover, which is why you often see them by the Capital Beltway. “They’re feeding on the grass on the berm,” Thorington said. Wait, does the woodchuck have a tail? Yes, but it’s a short little one.
Eastern chipmunk . Also a ground squirrel. It’s a little critter with white and black stripes on its back. Chipmunks seem more skittish to me than gray squirrels, bolting off as soon as they spot a human. Maybe it’s because they’re so small. When you’re a chipmunk, do you think everyone and everything is out to get you?
“It’s more subject to predation,” Thorington said. “Their hideaway is down underground and in rock walls.” A gray squirrel will feel safe once it gets to the bottom of a tree, knowing it can zip up it. But a chipmunk doesn’t feel secure until it’s in its burrow or has found a chink somewhere to hide in.
The etymology of the name is unclear. It may come from a Native American word for the animal (otchi-ta-mou) or it could be from the chipmunk’s cry: chip!
And that’s it — at least as far as native species go. But if you go to the National Zoo’s Small Mammal House, you can see a squirrel that looks as if it’s been created by an artist or souped up by a hot rodder: the Prevost’s squirrel.
Native to Southeast Asia, the Prevost’s has a black top, a chestnut-red belly and a white stripe running down each side. It is an eye-catching squirrel. If the National Zoo wants to release a few squirrels into Rock Creek Park — as it did with Canadian black squirrels a century ago — this is the squirrel to release.
Of course, it never will. So we must be content to go to Malaysia or Thailand — or visit it at the zoo. Or read the words of English naturalist Graham Renshaw, who in 1905 wrote: “Sprightly, inquisitive and intelligent, Prevost’s squirrel is well worth keeping; its handsome appearance and entertaining disposition render it a very attractive subject for study.”
To take a behind-the-scenes video tour of the zoo’s Prevost’s exhibit go to PostLocal.com. For more Squirrel Week stories, go to washingtonpost.com/washingtology. You can send us photos you’ve taken of squirrels. Share your squirrel tales in the comments below. Or tweet your story (in 140 characters or less) on Twitter. Use #DCSquirrelWeek.