Delmarva Fox Squirrel eating a nut by a log - courtesy of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
By Dorcas Coleman and Glenn Therres
It is neither famed nor fabled beyond the Delmarva Peninsula. It does not tend to conjure up strong emotions, as do so many other wild, wooly members of the animal kingdom. Unlike the muskrat, it is not celebrated with an annual festival paying tribute to its lasting importance to Eastern Shore culture and heritage. It is not (fortunately!) vilified, as the nutria that provokes ire and contempt from conservationists, outdoorsmen and wildlife biologists alike.

Shy and retiring, it probably won’t turn up in your suburban backyard, racing and tripping along telephone lines or leaping through trees like a trapeze artist. It prefers the quiet of woods and farm fields, where it can munch corn and nuts, and mind its own business. It’s just not the kind of animal that would care for all the fuss...

Something Special
For those who have never seen a Delmarva fox squirrel, a trip through the Eastern Shore wilds might involve endless speculation as to whether any sighted squirrel could possibly be the elusive creature. Truth be told (and I am speaking from experience) --- if and when you see one, you won’t confuse it with its more common kin, the eastern gray squirrel. You’ll know right away, you’re looking at something special.

One of more than 30 federally listed threatened and endangered animal and plant species residing in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the Delmarva fox squirrel (Sciurus niger cinereus) may be the most well known. The Delmarva is one of the 10 recognized subspecies of fox squirrels, the largest tree squirrels in the western hemisphere.

Known for fat, fluffy tails that often reach a length of 15 inches (hence, the “fox” moniker), Delmarvas can be upwards of 30 inches in length (compared to the gray’s average 10-inch tail and 20-inch length), typically weighing between one and one-half to three pounds (double the weight range of its smaller cousin).

While the two squirrels may appear similar from a distance, upon close inspection their differences are quite noticeable. The Delmarva fox squirrel is paler, with a light, steel-gray coat, silvery tail with black edgings, and creamy to white undersides, ears and muzzle. The gray squirrel is a darker gray with rusty-brown fur on its face, tail, feet and upper back.

Stubby-necked, the Delmarva’s ears are shorter, thicker and more rounded, in contrast to the longer, more pointed ears of the thinner-necked gray squirrel. At a run, the Delmarva fox squirrel appears to be wearing white slippers.

Their behavior differs as well. Delmarvas spend considerable time on the ground, where they have been observed feeding in crop fields as far as 100 yards from the nearest woodlot, whereas the gray squirrel is primarily a tree dweller.

Bashful and quiet, Delmarvas are slower, more deliberate and generally less agile than the gray, escaping danger by running across the ground rather than scampering up a tree.

Where, oh where?
Delmarva fox squirrels live in mature hardwood forest stands along streams and bays, and in small woodlots next to agricultural fields. In southern Dorchester County, where the largest concentration of fox squirrels reside, their habitat also includes mature loblolly pine stands near marshes and tidal streams. Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is one of the best places to observe Delmarvas on the peninsula.

Typically, they prefer forests presenting an open, park-like understory, a high percentage of mature mixed hardwoods and pines, relatively closed canopies, and a high proportion of forest edge. Oaks, maples, hickories, beeches and pines are all important components of the forest where this species occurs because they provide food in the form of mast - that is, acorns, nuts and seeds. Delmarva fox squirrels are generally found in lower densities and, although they overlap in their range, have narrower habitat requirements than gray squirrels.

While historic populations were probably never huge, the fox squirrels’ range once included the entire Delmarva Peninsula, parts of southeastern Pennsylvania and possibly even areas of west-central New Jersey.

Loss of habitat is believed to be the major reason for its demise, and by the early 1900s it was extirpated from all states except Maryland. By 1967, its range was narrowed to only four Eastern Shore counties - Kent, Queen Anne’s, Talbot and Dorchester - less than 10 percent of its former reach.

Today the Delmarva often exists in small, pockets of suitable habitat, forest cover now fragmented by agriculture and development. These isolated populations are extremely vulnerable to local environmental disturbances.

Getting (re) established
Efforts to restore the population began in 1945, when DNR purchased LeCompte Wildlife Management Area in Dorchester County as a refuge for the fox squirrel. The Delmarva was listed as endangered in 1967, and in 1971 hunting of the species was formally banned.

Following its endangered listing, the Delmarva Fox Squirrel Recovery Team was formed to coordinate state and federal efforts for species protection and restoration. The first experimental reintroduction was begun in 1968, when 34 animals were taken from existing Maryland populations and released into suitable habitat at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. Reproduction was documented within three years and by 1974 this population had successfully expanded beyond the original release area.

Between 1978 and 1992, Delmarvas were reintroduced to every county on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and several other sites in the surrounding three states. The intent was to re-establish Delmarva fox squirrels throughout their historic range, and sites were selected in counties where no naturally occurring populations were known to exist. The one exception was Eastern Neck Island at the extreme southern end of Kent County, where an isolated population remained.

Reintroductions were attempted at 11 sites that met a series of strict requirements: suitable forested habitat was present and would remain intact; opportunity for population expansion beyond the release site existed; landowners were comfortable with having an endangered species on their property; and no squirrel hunting was conducted on the property.

Over a three year period in spring and/or fall months, groups of 8 to 42 squirrels were released at each site, all but one of which was on private property. From 1990 to 2001, DNR biologists assessed the success of the program, conducting live trappings to document the presence of new Delmarvas and gauge their relative abundance. Nine reintroduction sites proved successful, with failures occurring in two areas: one where land management priorities had shifted, and an early site where only a few squirrels had been released.

The nine successful sites are now considered to hold established populations. In addition, landowners, hunters and others experienced at identifying fox squirrels have reported sightings beyond at least six of the original release areas.

A bright forecast?
Baby Delmarva Fox Squirrels Much of the habitat now occupied by the Delmarva fox squirrel remains on private property. Still, the species’ continued success rests heavily on other partners as well. Along with the willingness of landowners to provide for the squirrels, the commitment of loggers and developers to maintaining mature forest and the ability of DNR to ensure appropriate habitat is maintained are fundamental.

Ironically, limited forestry operations - such as selective cuttings that encourage growth of nut-bearing trees - are possible without excluding the Delmarvas.

Special efforts to preserve wooded corridors between more isolated populations are key; proper maintenance of wooded stream buffers and hedgerows should help accomplish this. The Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Law of 1984, which requires endangered species habitat protection within 1,000 feet of the shoreline during mean high tide, provides further protection of crucial fox squirrel habitat.

With recent indications showing that the Delmarva fox squirrel’s status is improving, the potential for total recovery does exist, and maintaining small remnant populations on public lands will remain quite possible. The forecast for a bright future -- and a true recovery for this unassuming species -- will depend on the cooperative efforts of the federal, state and local governments, conservation groups, and private landowners.

A complete recovery would be a wonderful thing... not just for the Delmarva fox squirrel, but for all creatures, great and small. And who knows? With such a victory, might an annual festival all its own be close behind...

Dorcas Coleman is a member of DNR’s Public Communications Office and the Assistant Editor of The Natural Resource magazine.

Glenn Therres, Associate Director of DNR’s Wildlife and Heritage Service, supervises the agencys’ Endangered Species Conservation efforts. He has worked on Delmarva fox squirrel recovery in Maryland for over 15 years and serves as DNR’s expert on the species. He has been a member of the federal DFS Recovery Team since 1988.

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Delmarva Fox Squirrel photograph provided by the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge