Tail of success: Squirrel’s comeback good news for Delmarva Peninsula
The Delmarva fox squirrel is a large, silver-gray squirrel that only occurs on the Delmarva Peninsula. This true Eastern Shore native prefers the forests and agricultural fields of the peninsula landscape and avoids the suburban developments.
Historically, as its name suggests, the squirrel was found in the Delmarva Peninsula: Delaware, eastern Maryland and eastern Virginia. It was also found in southeastern Pennsylvania.
The Delmarva fox squirrel was placed on the first endangered species list because, by 1967, its distribution had been reduced to only 10 percent of the Delmarva Peninsula.
Clearing for agriculture, timber harvest and hunting at the turn of the century all contributed to the decline. Today, recovery efforts are helping to turn the tide and now the population's range is expanding.
Once a strictly government-driven initiative; current community-based conservation efforts not only help the Delmarva fox squirrel, but play a major role in preserving the rural character of the Eastern Shore.
It is a large squirrel, and can grow to 30 inches-half of that is the tail-and weigh 1-3 pounds. The squirrel's coat is typically a frosty silver-gray color but can vary in color to almost black. The only other tree squirrel in this same range is the common gray squirrel, often seen in backyards and business parks. The widespread gray squirrel is smaller (16-20 inches), has a narrower tail and brownish gray fur.
Although the Delmarva fox squirrel is a tree squirrel, it spends considerable time on the ground foraging for food in wood lots or farm fields. Less agile than the gray squirrel, the Delmarva fox squirrel ambles along the forest floor while the gray squirrel spends more time leaping from branch to branch.
The Delmarva fox squirrel lives in mature forests of mixed hardwoods and pines. These older trees create a closed canopy and open understory. They also provide abundant crops of acorns and seeds for food, and cavities for den sites.
There has been a major effort to increase the population size and distribution of the squirrel by re-establishing populations within the historic range. After a study of the historic distribution, 16 reintroductions were made in Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and Pennsylvania; 11 of these reintroductions have succeeded. In addition, Delmarva fox squirrels have been observed in areas where they were previously unknown.
Currently, the Delmarva fox squirrel is found in eight of nine counties on Maryland's Eastern Shore (all but Cecil), Sussex County in Delaware and Accomack County in Virginia (Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge).
Monitoring changes in the population of this reclusive animal is challenging. Trapping and marking live animals provides the most information about a population, including sex ratios and age classes. Monitoring the use of artificial nest boxes has also helped to determine their long-term presence at some sites.
In addition, recording all of the sightings of animals across their range using computer mapping programs has led to a better understanding of their distribution as well as the easy updating of any changes.
New monitoring techniques are also being developed. Motion-triggered cameras placed in the woods provide evidence of Delmarva fox squirrels and are less time-consuming and costly than trapping.
Another technique under development is the use of hair-catchers that can be baited and placed in the forest. Samples collected are then taken back to a lab for identification. Research has already determined that the DNA in Delmarva fox squirrel hair can be distinguished from the gray squirrel.
The Delmarva fox squirrel can have a bright future with a little help. Landowners can help provide habitat for these squirrels. Fortunately, the Delmarva fox squirrel can thrive in a landscape that is managed for farming and sustainable timber harvest. Timber harvests should be conducted so that some habitat is left for the squirrels. Keeping clear-cuts small and scattered in the landscape ensures that there is enough forest for the squirrels to move into.
Developers can also assist with conservation efforts by minimizing forest clearing, leaving the largest areas of mature forest intact and maintaining corridors between wood lots.
Maintaining and enhancing the forests along streams also provides corridors for Delmarva fox squirrels to travel and stay connected.
These measures to protect the Delmarva fox squirrel also help other wildlife that depends on the peninsula's native forests.
For the best chance to see a Delmarva fox squirrel and learn more about this resident of the Delmarva Peninsula, visit Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (Dorchester County, MD), Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (Accomack County, VA) and Prime Hook (Sussex County, DE). Also, be on the lookout in the woods and field edges throughout its range.
For details about the current status of the Delmarva fox squirrel, visit the Delmarva Peninsula Fox Squirrel Five-Year Review online at www.fws.gov/chesapeakebay/EndSppWeb/DFS/StatusReview.html or call Dr. Cherry Keller, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at 410-573-4532.
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