Eastern Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger)

Eastern fox squirrel | Photo credit: Brian Henderson

The Eastern fox squirrel is a common sight in forests, wooded urban parks, and gardens of the Central and Eastern United States (except New England), including much of Texas, as well as northern Mexico and southern Canada.

The fox squirrel is the largest tree squirrel and about 20% larger than its close relative, the eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). Fox squirrels measure between 19 to 29 inches in length from head to tail tip and weigh between 1 and 3 pounds. Three color variations exist among fox squirrels: in the northeastern regions, they have grey backs with yellowish undersides; in the western part of their range (like much of Texas) they have gray backs with rust-colored undersides; in the south they may be black with a white mark on their face and on the tip of their tail.

Like all squirrels, fox squirrels forage on the ground and in trees, feeding on a variety of nuts, seeds and plants. Squirrels also occasionally feed on insects, bird eggs, or hatchlings. While not aggressive, squirrels can use their sharp teeth and curved claws for defense if necessary.

Adept climbers, squirrels take to the trees when danger threatens. Once safely out of reach, the squirrel lashes its bushy tail and scolds the intruder with a series of barks. Due to predation, squirrels normally do not live past six years of age. Numerous hawks and mammals prey upon squirrels, particularly the young. Squirrels are also frequently struck by vehicles.

Like other rodents, the fox squirrel is sometimes labelled as a pest. However, the squirrel’s innate desire to bury a stockpile of nuts plays an important part in reforestation. Each nut the squirrel fails to reclaim has the opportunity to sprout and grow into a new tree. Backyard birdfeeders are a favorite target of squirrel “raids”, requiring bird watchers to exercise some ingenuity of their own to thwart these furry bandits.

Squirrels are prevalent and can be readily observed at most Texas parks. For example, many wild squirrels can be found living on the grounds of the San Antonio Zoo, located in San Antonio’s Brackenridge Park.

Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus)

Eastern cottontail | Photo credit: Gareth Rasberry

The most common rabbit species in Texas is the Eastern cottontail, identifiable by its two- to three-pound body, brown or gray coat, white belly, and distinctive white tail. They are widespread in brushy areas from southern Canada to South America, predominantly east of the Rocky Mountains. A related species, the desert cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii), occurs in Texas and the desert Southwest.

Cottontails feed at night, subsisting on a variety of green plants, barks, buds, and grasses. Unlike the jackrabbit, which is actually a member of the hare family, cottontails are true rabbits. This distinction is important, as hares are born virtually self-sufficient, whereas rabbits are born hairless, blind, and helpless. In addition, hares tend to be larger and more muscular than rabbits.

The cottontail is an essential element of the food chain, serving as prime prey for many predators. As a result, cottontail life expectancy is extremely short — one year or less — requiring the prolific reproduction so often attributed to rabbit species. In addition to their reproductive strategy, cottontails thrive because they are swift-moving and can jump distances of up to eight feet at a time when pursued, making split-second changes in direction to frustrate and elude predators.

Cottontails are somewhat difficult to view, due to their swift and elusive nature. Viewing opportunities are best in brushy areas near ponds, marshes, and streams, particularly along the Texas coast.

Desert Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus crooki)

Desert mule deer | Photo credit: Ross Tsai

Desert mule deer, also known as “black-tail deer”, are found in rugged, desert regions of western North America, including the Texas Panhandle and western portions of the state. They are closely related to the Rocky Mountain subspecies, which inhabits mountainous wooded areas. Distinctive features of mule deer are a black-tipped tail, white rump patch, and erect, nine-inch-long ears. Their hide is rusty brown in the summer, and gray in winter, with white undersides year-round.

Adult mule deer are slightly larger than white-tail deer, with bucks weighing in excess of 200 pounds and standing three or more feet high; does are smaller and lighter. Bucks grow a new set of antlers each year, which they shed after the breeding season. Mature bucks have antlers that branch equally, with each antler having two main beams, and two or more tines per beam.

Classified as herbivores, mule deer browse on grasses, green plants, twigs, bark, buds, fruit, and nuts. Their lifespan is approximately ten years.

Predators such as mountain lion and coyote may feed on mule deer. One means of protection is the deer’s unique gait, known as “stotting”. Stotting involves leaping — stiff-legged — high into the air, and landing on all four hooves after each bound. Stotting allows the deer to cover significant distances with minimal effort and clear large obstacles that can impede their predators.

More curious and less skittish than their whitetail counterparts, mule deer offer excellent viewing and photographic opportunities. Palo Duro Canyon State Park offers the potential for mule deer viewing. For better luck, visit Davis Mountains State Park, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, or Big Bend National Park, each of which offers superb viewing opportunities for this species.