Most backyards in North America have only one type of squirrel that you see regularly.
In northern and eastern regions, the two most common types are red and gray squirrels.
But if you’ve ever seen these two squirrels side-by-side then you know they’re really quite different animals! Not just in terms of size & appearance, but also in their behavior, habitat & even their diet.
So today let’s explore 8 key differences between red and gray squirrels in order to gain deeper insight about our backyard tree dwelling friends.
What’s the difference between red & gray squirrels?
To start off, take a look at this side-by-side comparison of a red squirrel on the left, and a gray squirrel on the right.
Let’s break down some things to notice about these two squirrels pictured above:
On the surface, perhaps the most obvious difference between red and gray squirrels is their color.
Generally, red squirrels will all have this same reddish brown color shown above with very little variation. Red squirrels are a species of arboreal (tree dwelling) rodent that all have fur looking more or less identical to the photo above.
However it’s important to realize that gray squirrels are NOT always gray.
One of the big differences in gray squirrels from red squirrels is that they come in many different colors including gray, black & even shades of blond.
It’s important to realize these color variations are all part of the same species of squirrel, and can even be brothers and sisters in the same family.
This means color can be a good way to identify squirrels, but only if you remember that gray squirrel communities are multi-colored.
The basic idea is:
- Red squirrels are always red.
- Any other color is a gray squirrel (or possibly fox squirrel in overlapping ranges).
In most cases these rules will work, however, New York city is known to have a population of cinnamon colored gray squirrels, which could be confused with red squirrels if you don’t know the other differences.
So while color can be useful, it’s actually not the best way to identify red and gray squirrels in all cases.
So what’s the best way to identify them?
In general, the best way to identify gray squirrels from red squirrels is by their size difference.
Gray squirrels are significantly larger than red squirrels. According to most sources, gray squirrels weigh in at a range of 400-600 grams, which is almost twice the size of the 250-330 gram red squirrels.
This size difference is very obvious just by looking at them, and is typically the fastest & most accurate way to identify squirrels in actual practice.
If you’re used to watching gray squirrels and then you suddenly see a red squirrel, their small size will really stand out to you.
Side note: If you live further south, it’s also important to know whether your area has fox squirrels which are even bigger than gray squirrels, and sometimes even interbreed with their populations.
3. Ear Tufts
Another interesting clue to help with squirrel identification is that red squirrels grow little tufts of hair on their ears during winter.
Ear tufts are a more subtle characteristic than the overall size & color, but it still gives us a bit more insight into their character.
In actual practice, you really don’t need to look at squirrels this closely to tell them apart but it’s a funny quirk and something to look for during the cold season.
4. Social Behavior: Communal vs Solitary Squirrels
A much deeper level of knowledge about squirrels comes when you go beyond identification and begin to study their behavior.
Here the differences become even more obvious because red and gray squirrels have vastly different approaches to how they interact socially with other squirrels.
So how do red & gray squirrels differ in terms of their behavior?
Gray Squirrels Are Communal Squirrels
Gray squirrels are generally considered to be much more community oriented than red squirrels.
It’s extremely common to see groups of gray squirrels all hanging out peacefully together in the same area. They share territories, food and sometimes even sleep together.
In many ways, this is really the biggest of all the differences between red and gray squirrels because red squirrels are not communally oriented at all.
Red Squirrels Are Territorial/Solitary Squirrels
Red squirrels in sharp contrast to gray squirrels are some of the most aggressively territorial animals on the planet.
They actively defend their territories, food caches & nest sites with a wide variety of loud vocalizations and visual displays of aggression.
This aggression begins quite early after the baby squirrels are born, and continues for the rest of their life. In this sense, red and gray squirrels really are polar opposites.
Aside from some occasional overlap at the edges of different habitat types, gray squirrels and red squirrels also tend to occupy very different niches in their habitat.
Gray squirrels thrive in urban & suburban environments and typically prefer forests dominated by deciduous trees (like the oak & beech forests we discussed in a different article on mast trees).
Red squirrels tend to become dominant in more remote forested habitats that include a lot of coniferous trees such as spruce and fir.
For this reason, many people who live in cities have never actually seen a red squirrel, and might not even realize they exist in your area.
The quintessential “squirrel on a power line” is a gray squirrel in almost every case. In all my years living close to red squirrels I’ve only ever seen one use the power lines to move around.
The result (or perhaps the cause of their habitat differences) is that despite being very closely related species in the squirrel family, red and gray squirrels eat almost completely different diets.
Gray squirrels eat a lot of large fleshy deciduous nuts like acorns & walnuts, while red squirrels tend to horde the cones of coniferous trees like spruce and feast on the tiny seeds.
Both squirrels also take advantage opportunistically of hunting insects (and even eating bird eggs!) however the exact species they hunt will vary depend on the ecology of their chosen forest type.
I covered what squirrels eat in much more detail in another article.
7. Calls & Vocalizations
Red and gray squirrels each make their own distinct set of calls & vocalizations which can be used for identification and behavior interpretation.
Grey squirrels who are upset will make a raspy bark when predators are nearby. In some cases it sounds a lot like a small dog barking.
In the following video clip you’ll hear some gray squirrel barking and related alarm calls from nearby robins and other smaller birds.
The red squirrel sound is a combination of high pitched “TIP” sounds mixed with lower range “CHUCK” calls that are used in varying combinations for different situations ranging from predator alarms to territorial situations:
Because red squirrels are so territorial, overall they tend to make a lot more noise than gray squirrels.
Red squirrels also make a loud trilling scream and are generally make a lot more noise than gray squirrels who are less easily offended. You can hear this rattling “scream” call at the 20 second mark in the following clip:
I’ve written a lot more on this topic, so if you want to explore the nuances of squirrel language, go read up about why squirrels chatter and scream so much.
8. Interactions Between Red & Gray Squirrels
Another way to gain insight about these two common messengers of the forest is to look at how they interact where territories overlap.
If you ever find yourself lucky enough to live in a place that has both red squirrels and gray squirrels living in close proximity, this is an amazing opportunity to learn and study their differences.
This is where a lot of interesting questions come up to truly define the boundaries of what it means to be a red squirrel or gray squirrel including their breeding, cooperation and competition.
Can Red Squirrels And Gray Squirrels Interbreed?
Because these are two different species, red squirrels cannot interbreed with gray squirrels.
Even gray squirrels who have a reddish color to their fur are born from two gray squirrel parents. When you see these color variations, remember that size is still the key identification characteristic as explained above in point #2.
Why Are Some Squirrels Red/Black/Gray/Blond?
So if they can’t interbreed, then why are all these different color squirrels living together?
Why can a single family of squirrels include both gray, black and possibly even other colors of squirrels?
Well, this is very similar to genetic variation in red foxes which sometimes makes them black.
It’s the same as how human children can have different colored eyes or hair than their parents. It has to do with the genetic combinations and recessive genes.
As a ridiculous example, it’s a bit similar to why red hair in humans cannot be caused by having an orangutan for a parent… because humans cannot mate with orangutans.
Do Gray Squirrels And Red Squirrels Get Along?
In most cases, red and gray squirrels have such distinct niches in the forest that their territories and trails almost never overlap.
For this reason, even if you do see red and gray squirrels nearby in the same area, they typically co-exist quite peacefully.
It’s not so much that they get along, as much as they don’t have any good reason to get in each other’s way.
Do Red And Gray Squirrels Compete?
In general – red and gray squirrels do not directly compete because they occupy different habitat niches.
Red squirrels are more dominant in coniferous forests, while gray squirrels are more dominant in deciduous forests and cities.
In mixed forests, their territories can occasionally overlap, however, even in these situations they tend to use different trails and different food sources so it’s rare for this to cause problems.
Why Do Red Squirrels Chase Gray Squirrels?
In cases where their activity does overlap, typically red squirrels will be the more aggressive and likely to chase the gray squirrels.
Considering that they’re so much smaller, this can be a funny surprise to see the red squirrels acting aggressively towards gray squirrels. But it really just comes down to the fact that red squirrels are so much more territorial.
If you spend a lot of time in mixed or coniferous forests with high red squirrel populations then you know what I’m talking about. You’ve probably been yelled at by a squirrel or two in your days!
When it comes down to it, gray squirrels and red squirrels really aren’t competing over food, nesting sites or mates, so there’s no reason for them to be territorial other than the fact that red squirrels are very aggressive towards pretty much everything.
Go Look For These Differences Yourself!
So now all you have to do is go watch your local squirrels for yourself.
Making your own observations is really what brings the magic of nature to life.
- How many of these squirrel differences can you observe in your own backyard?
- Are you seeing signs of territorial or communal squirrel behavior?
- What else do you notice about your local gray and red squirrels?
Let me know what you discover out there, and happy squirrel watching!
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