WDFW LogoWashington Department of Fish & Wildlife
  HELP | EMPLOYMENT | NEWS | CONTACT  
WDFW LogoConservation

 

For more information on
wildlife recovery and management, please contact
the Wildlife Program.

Phone: 360-902-2515
E-mail: wildthing@dfw.wa.gov

 

 
Western Gray Squirrel
   MORE INFORMATION
Western Gray Squirrel Research
Western Gray Squirrel Recovery Plan
Implementation Plan for Augmentation of the Western Gray Squirrel Population, Fort Lewis, Washington
PHS Management Recommendations for the Western Gray Squirrel
Download PDF version of Western Gray Squirrels and Other Squirrels of Washington

This is a guide to distinguish the state threatened western gray squirrel from other native tree squirrels (Douglas', red, and flying) and from three non-native species (eastern gray, eastern fox, and California ground squirrels) with which they can be readily confused. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife maintains records on the distribution of western gray squirrels in Washington; your assistance in reporting sightings of this species is appreciated.

Western gray, Douglas', red, and flying squirrels are all protected species in Washington (WAC 232-12-011). Eastern gray, eastern fox, and California ground squirrels are not protected in Washington and may be hunted any time as long as all firearm restrictions are followed and a hunting license is possessed. It is unlawful to release all wildlife, including eastern gray, eastern fox, or California ground squirrels, anywhere in the state other than on the property where they were legally trapped, without a permit to do so (WAC 232-12-271).

The Decline of the Western Gray Squirrel

The western gray squirrel was added to Washington's list of state threatened species in 1993 when surveys indicated a decline in its geographical distribution. The species was once common at low to mid-elevations in dry forests where oak, pine, and Douglas-fir mix, and could be found in the south Puget Trough and Columbia River gorge and on the east slope of the Cascades north to Okanogan County. Its range is now limited to three isolated populations and each of these has serious threats to their continued persistence. These threats include (1) habitat loss and degradation from human development, catastrophic wild fires, logging, fire suppression, and invasion by weeds; (2) highway mortality; (3) disease (e.g., mange, tularemia); (4) possible competition with eastern gray, eastern fox, and California ground squirrels, and wild turkeys; and (5) potential loss of genetic diversity and inbreeding resulting from the small sizes and isolation of populations. State law RCW 77.15.130 protects nest trees used by western gray squirrels. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists will consult with landowners to protect and enhance oak/conifer habitat.

oak_leafDistribution

The current distribution of western gray squirrels in Washington is limited to three areas: the oak woodlands and conifer forests of Klickitat and southern Yakima counties; low to mid-elevation conifer forests in Okanogan and Chelan counties; and the oak woodlands and conifer forests on Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Pierce and Thurston counties. The North Cascades population is the only one occurring outside of the range of Oregon white oak in Washington.

Native Douglas' squirrels can be found living alongside western grays in all three populations, whereas red squirrels overlap with western grays only in the North Cascades. The introduced eastern gray squirrel has expanded into western gray squirrel range in the south Puget Trough and in Klickitat County, but has not yet been reported in the North Cascades where the introduced fox squirrel can currently be found. California ground squirrels overlap with western grays only in the Klickitat population. The maps below show the ranges of each species as of 2013.

Western Gray Squirrel map Douglas Squirrel map
Northern Flying Squirrel map Eastern Gray Squirrel map
Fox Squirrel map California Ground Squirrel map
Species of Squirrels in Washington State Click on image
to enlarge
Western gray squirrel (Sciurus griseus)
Body: 12" Tail: 12"
Western gray squirrels are the largest native tree squirrel in Washington. They are steel gray on the back with contrasting white on the belly and throat resulting in the name "silver gray squirrel" in some parts of their range. They are distinguished by their very long and bushy tails that are primarily gray with white-frosted outer edges. They also have prominent ears, which can be reddish-brown on the back in winter; this occasional small patch of brown on the back of the ears is only visible upon close inspection and is the only part of the animal's pelage that may have any brown. The western gray squirrel's large size, bushy tail, and gray pelage lacking any brown on the body or tail are keys to distinguishing it from other tree squirrels in Washington. Western gray squirrels forage in trees for acorns and conifer seeds, but also forage on the ground for mushrooms and bury acorns. They travel from tree to tree or on the ground in graceful, wave-like leaps. They may vocalize in the fall with a hoarse "chuff-chuff-chuff" barking.

Western Gray Squirrel
Western Gray Squirrel

Douglas' squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii)
Body: 7" Tail: 5"
Douglas' squirrels are small native tree squirrels. They are dark brown on the back fading to a reddish- or brownish-gray on the sides; their underparts are orange to gray and are offset by a short black stripe. The eye ring is pale orange. Their tails are somewhat bushy, slightly flattened, and have a black tip. Douglas' squirrels vocalize often and have a range of calls from a low "chirr" to a sharp staccato "cough."  Scolding calls are commonly directed at humans.

Douglas Squirrel
Douglas Squirrel

Red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)
Body: 8" Tail: 6.5"
Red squirrels are native and closely resemble their cousin the Douglas' squirrel. Their coat is typically reddish-brown on the back, fading to brown on the sides. A black line contrasts with the white belly in summer, but fades as the whole coat brightens in winter. The eye has a prominent white ring. The ranges of red and Douglas' squirrels overlap in the North Cascades Mountains.  Scolding calls are often directed at humans.
Red Squirrel
Red Squirrel
Northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus)
Body: 5" Tail: 7"
Northern flying squirrels are a small native squirrel found throughout forested parts of the state. They have dense, silky cinnamon to gray-brown fur above and a cream-colored belly. They have wide, flat tails, large dark eyes, and relatively long ears. A fur-covered fold of skin stretches from the wrist to the ankle and is spread outward when gliding. Flying squirrels are rarely seen because they are nocturnal and sleep in tree cavities or stick nests during the day.

Northern Flying Squirrel
Northern Flying Squirrel

Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)
Body: 10.5" Tail: 8"
Eastern gray squirrels are mid-sized, with relatively narrow tails and short ears compared to western gray squirrels. They have a pale gray coat with a reddish-brown wash on the face, back, and tail. Their underparts are creamy white. Eastern gray squirrels were first introduced into Washington in 1925. They are now common in many cities, and thrive in developed areas. When hunting this species, special care should be taken to distinguish between it and the similar western gray squirrel.
Northern Flying Squirrel
Eastern Gray Squirrel
Eastern Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger)
Body: 13" Tail: 11"
Eastern fox squirrels are large with variable reddish-brown to pale gray backs and red to yellow-orange underparts. They have broad tails, coarse, grizzled fur, and short ears. Fox squirrels can be found in habitats with fewer trees than most other tree squirrels. They were introduced into Washington from the eastern United States and occur in urban and rural environments in several regions of the state.
Fox Squirrel
Eastern Fox Squirrel

California ground squirrel (Spermophilus beecheyi)
Body: 11" Tail: 7"
California ground squirrels, also called "gray diggers", have large heads and stout bodies. Their upperparts are gray-brown with light flecks and the belly is off-white. A triangle of dark fur on the back contrasts with gray-tinged shoulders. Their tails are gray above and off-white below, and can be narrow or bushy. California ground squirrels spend most of their time on the ground, where they run belly to the ground, but occasionally may be seen in trees or sagebrush. They prefer living in pastures, grasslands, mixed oak/grassland, and along the edges of ponderosa pine forest and shrub-steppe. This species entered Washington from Oregon in the early 1900s, naturally expanding its range north by crossing the Columbia River. When hunting this species, special care should be taken to distinguish between it and the similar western gray squirrel.

California Ground Squirrel
California Ground Squirrel
California Ground Squirrel

Signs of Squirrels

All tree squirrels may build or use stick and leaf nests and some use tree cavities for denning. Western gray squirrel nests are large and are often clustered in dry oak/conifer forests. Occupied nests may have fresh leaves, green conifer boughs, or lichen on top. California ground squirrels nest in underground burrows. Chewed cones and needle clusters on the ground and small, golf-ball sized digs in the forest soil may be signs of western gray squirrel feeding activity. Large piles of cone scales generally indicate the presence of Douglas' or red squirrels.

For more information or to report western gray squirrel sightings contact:
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
600 Capitol Way North
Olympia, Washington 98501-1091
(360) 902-2515