December 8, 2019, Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center
I’ve never seen a red squirrel in Chicago. Years ago I’d read the bigger gray squirrel dominates and drives them out.
I’ve now seen both species at the Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center peacefully (more or less) sharing the feeders. I asked one of the staff why they have red squirrels when Chicago (or at least my part of it) doesn’t. She said red squirrels prefer (or need?) conifer trees.
I found my original information that gray squirrels push out the smaller red squirrels was from the United Kingdom. There, the introduced eastern gray squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis, an invasive species, has reduced the native Eurasian red squirrel, Sciurus vulgaris, to near threatened status.
This is where usage of common names is problematic. The red squirrel of northern and central Indiana, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus, is a different animal altogether. Known as “pineys” in Indiana, the red squirrel shares a genus with the Douglas squirrel and Mearns’s squirrel. (Try saying that fast.) When not raiding feeders, these “pine squirrels” feed on the cones of conifers. Wikipedia notes the red squirrel “has been expanding its range into hardwood forests.”
The upshot is I’m not likely to see red squirrels in Hyde Park in the foreseeable future. Through an episode of Urban Nature, however, I learned Chicago does boast a second squirrel species, the fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), which I may have seen and thought was a color variation of the gray squirrel. They’re larger, though. According to Urban Nature, they’re found in areas where gray squirrels fear to tread—where predators like coyotes and feral dogs and cats are more common.
There is another squirrel I’m not likely to see—the nocturnal southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans). During a saw-whet owl banding at the Nature Center, we learned the mist nets meant for the owls on occasion trap other creatures, such as bats and flying squirrels. As much as I would like to see a flying squirrel, the researchers would rather not. An ensnared flying squirrel quickly frees itself by destroying the pricey mist net, putting a damper on the evening’s saw-whet owl banding activity. I can almost hear, “Curses! Foiled again!”