Taxonomy of Louisiana’s squirrels

There is perhaps no greater source of discussion concerning Louisiana squirrels than identification of species and subspecies ,and their respective color phases.

Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries biologist Cody Cedotal said it’s really not that complicated.

“There are two species of squirrels in Louisiana, and these are gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) and fox squirrels (Sciurus niger),” Cedotal said. “There are, however, two recognized subspecies of gray squirrels and three subspecies of fox squirrels occurring in Louisiana’s diverse habitats.”

In terms of the gray squirrel, the most predominant subspecies seen in most hunters’ game bags is the Southern gray squirrel (S. c. carolinensis) which sports a grayish-brown body with a white underside. The central portion of its bushy tail matches the body coloration, with the exception that white fur edges its circumference.

The Southern gray squirrel can be found just about everywhere in Louisiana, and true albinos are not uncommon.

Southern gray squirrels also have been observed in a “blond phase,” which differs from a true albino in that the body fur is slightly yellow and the animals sport dark eyes compared to the solid-white fur and pink eyes found with albinism.

There is another gray squirrel subspecies that stirs up discussions about interbreeding between gray and fox squirrels. However, most biologists agree that interbreeding between gray and fox squirrels is, at most, rare.

The suspect subspeciesn fueling such claims is the Bayou gray squirrel (S. c. fulginosis) that presently occurs in the Atchafalaya and Mississippi River Delta areas, as well as the southern portions of the Florida Parishes.

The chief coloration distinction between the Southern gray subspecies and its Bayou relative is the underbelly, which is usually reddish on Bayou grays as opposed to Southern gray’s white underside.

While that reddish belly color evokes thoughts of interbreeding with Delta fox squirrels, the tails of Bayou gray squirrels more closely resemble that of the Southern gray subspecies, thereby making an appropriate identification possible.

“(Bayou) gray squirrels have been observed at Sherburne and Richard K. Yancey WMAs,” Cedatol said.

There has been confirmation of this subspecies in the game bags of squirrel hunters at Thistlethwaite WMA, as well.

Louisiana gray squirrels emit a wide variety of sounds, including a distinctive soft mewing noise similar to a domestic kitten — hence the moniker “cat squirrel.”

The actual French term for the species is “l’écureuil gris,” which translates literally as “gray squirrel.” The word “l’écureuil,” however, is more commonly used without the “gris” by Cajun and Creole hunters referring to all squirrels found in their game bags.

As for the relatively larger fox squirrel species, three subspecies are found in the Bayou State, according to G.H. Lowery Jr. in “The Mammals of Louisiana and its Adjacent Waters.”

The most common is the medium-sized Delta fox squirrel (S. n. subauratus), which is more reddish in both body and tail coloration. The Delta fox’s preferred habitat is delta areas, as its name suggests, and they can be readily taken by hunters in the Mississippi, Red, Tensas and Atchafalaya river basins.

Black Delta fox squirrels are not uncommon.

True albino Delta fox squirrels are even rarer than colorless gray squirrels. One was taken last season by Shane Vidrine of Vidrine when hunting Richard K. Yancey WMA.

The Florida Parish region north of Lake Pontchartrain is home to another subspecies of fox squirrels: Bachman’s fox squirrel (S. n. bachmani). This subspecies is characterized by patches of white on its nose and other wisps of white fur on its ears, toes and tail.

Black Bachman’s fox squirrels do appear, but they are not nearly as common as black Delta gray squirrels.

“Bachman fox squirrels can be located on upland pine areas and have been found at Sandy Hollow and Lake Ramsey Savannah WMAs,” Cedotal said.

The largest of all Louisiana’s fox squirrel subspecies is called the chucklehead or big-headed fox squirrel (S. n. ludovicienus), which is prevalent in western Louisiana. It is characterized by a huge head and is often paler in color — almost blonde, compared the more prevalent Delta foxs.

Chuckleheads have been known to weigh up to 2 ½ pounds.

They can be taken at Clear Creek, Fort Polk and West Bay WMAs in Vernon Parish, according to Cedotal.

About Chris Berzas 368 Articles
Chris Berzas has fished and hunted in the Bayou State ever since he could hold a rod and shoot a shotgun. Berzas has been a freelancer featured in newspapers, magazines, television and DVDs since 1989.