1/25/2018 9:42:13 AM
By Rick Hamrick
The “Hill Country” or Bachman fox squirrel (Scirus niger bachmani) is one of two subspecies of fox squirrels that thrive in Mississippi. The subspecies was named in honor of the naturalist John Bachman who contributed to the scientific community’s early knowledge of squirrels. Bachman worked closely with John J. Audubon, another famous naturalist, and painter—perhaps most memorable for his illustrations of American birds. It was Audubon or his son who created early illustrations of many mammals, including fox squirrels, with Bachman supplying scientific information.
The Bachman fox squirrel is a large, colorful squirrel typically having a reddish color overall with black coloration on the upper body and head with white on the nose, ears, toes, and often the tip of the tail. In contrast, the Delta subspecies is smaller and has two color phases—rusty red and black.
Like our other squirrels, fox squirrels feed on a variety of nuts, seeds, fruits, fungi, buds of plants, and insect larvae. They are quite at home on the ground and frequently venture into open areas. Because of their larger size, they are less agile than gray squirrels in trees, but they readily utilize trees to escape danger, rest and raise young. They tend to favor open ground with a high degree of visibility, most likely to aid in visual detection of predators. The Bachman fox squirrel is usually found in areas of open, upland forests such as mature longleaf pine or mixed pine-hardwood forests or areas with a mix of open fields and patches of woods. Hardwoods associated with creeks and drains within these predominately upland systems are also important habitats. Historically, fires likely played a key role in maintaining open woodland forests favored by the Bachman fox squirrel. The declining use of prescribed fire as a land management tool, along with conversion of agricultural land to other uses in some areas, likely has contributed to the loss of suitable habitat for this species.
Many hunters prize the fox squirrel as something of a trophy, particularly the Bachman fox squirrel because of its larger size and ornate coloration. There are doubtless many taxidermy specimens of these squirrels on display around the state. The Bachman fox squirrel’s value as table fare, however, is often a subject of debate.
Populations of Bachman fox squirrels are less abundant than they once were throughout much of their range. This is almost certainly related to loss or declining quality of habitat. Conversely, Delta fox squirrel populations appear to be relatively stable. Although we have an idea of what fox squirrel habitat is, there are many unknowns regarding fox squirrels in Mississippi. Because of their widespread distribution, a good amount of scientific information exists for gray squirrels. However, the majority of research conducted on fox squirrels is limited to subspecies of the Midwest and East. In particular, we know little about birth rates, mortality rates, longevity, and other important life history information for our subspecies.
Some evidence suggests that fox squirrels can live longer than gray squirrels. Fox squirrels also appear to be more solitary animals except during breeding periods. These characteristics could result in lower birth rates and overall reproductive activity. Thus, isolated populations could be at greater risk for localized extinction because of food shortage, habitat changes, loss of breeding individuals, and other events that negatively affect those populations.
There is a definite need for habitat conservation and research to effectively manage this species. In areas that have experienced large declines in suitable habitat, many seasoned squirrel hunters are aware that they encounter fewer fox squirrels than they once did. Hunters are encouraged to harvest conservatively in areas where fox squirrel populations are not as abundant as they once were. Land-owners may consider managing land to increase suitable habitat. Often, such management is value-added for a number of other game and non-game species. The MDWFP provides wildlife management technical assistance to landowners at no cost. Fox squirrels and other small game, including bobwhite quail and rabbits, that were long taken for granted can be conserved and increased with proper habitat management. It will take the dedication of public and private landowners alike to maintain the habitat required by these species and preserve their place in our hunting heritage.
Rick Hamrick is a MDWFP Small Game Program Leader.
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