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Louisiana Squirrels

Bayou-Diversity (10/25/2020) It has been suggested that some credit for American independence is due squirrels, which served as abundant targets to develop a citizenry of marksmen, and stew ingredients for pioneers. Perhaps they should receive more acclaim for perpetuating eastern hardwood forests as a result of their habit of burying larders of acorns, pecans, and hickory nuts.

Two species of diurnal squirrels are common in Louisiana - fox squirrels and eastern gray squirrels (aka cat squirrels). Fox squirrels are generally larger, weighing up to three pounds. They have grayish-black backs and orange-ish bellies. Some local populations, such as those in the Tensas Swamp, have high numbers of melanistic or solid black individuals. Gray squirrels rarely weigh over two pounds and are gray above and silver-gray below. Both species have long bushy tails, which are used at various times for balance, as a blanket, parachute, or umbrella. Fox squirrels tend to inhabit older, open forests whereas cat squirrels prefer hardwoods with a denser mid-story canopy and ground cover. Dens are in hollow trees or leaf nests.

Squirrels usually have two breeding seasons per year. Breeding peaks in January and February and again in May and June. Three or four young are born about six weeks later and are weaned in two months. Squirrels have lived up to fifteen years in captivity, but in the wild a three-year-old squirrel is old.

The diet of squirrels consists of acorns and other mast, buds, flowers, fruits, fungi, insects, and the inner bark of trees. A single squirrel can bury several thousand acorns over a period of a few months. Some of these are recovered later by smell, but many others germinate and contribute to the reproduction of hardwood forests.

Squirrels are popular game animals although the number of squirrel hunters in Louisiana has declined in recent years. One reason for the decline is the loss of good squirrel habitat as commercial pine plantations now blanket thousands of acres of once mixed pine-hardwood forests. If properly prepared, squirrel stews or sauce piquantes are considered a delicacy. If you have the opportunity to partake of such fare, impress your host by pointing out the species of squirrel in his pot. Fox squirrel bones are pink. Those of cat squirrels are gray. If you are so fortunate as to have the heads cooked also, point out that gray squirrels have an extra upper premolar on each side. That should validate your credentials as an American patriot and Louisiana squirrel connoisseur. ©KO


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